Homeland Security’s Possible Side Fight: Domestic Surveillance

The big fight on the Homeland Security bill headed to the House floor next week will undoubtedly be over immigration. But there’s another piece of the legislation that could cause political heartburn: funding for domestic surveillance programs.

Republicans have vowed to use their power of the purse to limit President Obama’s executive order ending the threat of deportation for millions of undocumented workers. But the bill released by House Republicans on Friday also provides $1.06 billion to programs that, in part, fund state and local law enforcement agencies to buy drones and cell phone tracking devices for domestic surveillance.

In fiscal 2014, DHS made nearly $1 billion available through two programs, the State Homeland Security Program and the Urban Areas Security Initiative, that aim to prepare law enforcement agencies for a potential terrorist attack. They are also how many police departments buy surveillance equipment, which have been used for burglary, drug and murder investigations.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, almost 50 law enforcement agencies in 19 states have used DHS funding to buy decoy cell towers, known as “stingrays,” that can intercept calls and text messages from cellular phone without users’ knowledge. And more than 80 police and government agencies have requested licenses to fly drones from the Federal Aviation Administration as of October 2012, according to a FOIA request from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Privacy advocacy groups see the DHS funding bill as an opportunity to get the reforms they want, like strengthening requirements for warrants.

“DHS is an agency focused on domestic surveillance, perhaps more so than any other agency,” said Jeramie Scott, a lawyer at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Scott said it would be a “significant step in the right direction,” if additional privacy requirements hitch a ride on the DHS funding bill.

“Congress needs to hold these agencies to account,” Scott said in an interview.

But it is unclear if lawmakers who have criticized domestic surveillance programs in the past will raise their objections on the House or Senate floor.

“We haven’t gotten into that level of detail yet,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said on Thursday. Paul got national attention in 2013 for staging a nearly 13-hour filibuster over the domestic use of drones.

The DHS inspector general this week released a report that found drones patrolling the border were more costly and less effective than anticipated. And after recent protests against police using anti-terrorism equipment since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mississippi, surveillance funding is primed for debate.

In December, the top members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, sent a letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson asking the agency to outline privacy policies used before law enforcement agencies use stingrays.

DHS is not the only agency that helps fund the domestic use of unmanned aircrafts. The Justice Department also provides funding for drone programs for local law enforcement agencies.