MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Last month, The Marshall Project reported:
When you think of a federal sting operation involving weaponry and military gear, the Government Accountability Office doesn’t immediately jump to mind. The office is tasked with auditing other federal agencies to root out fraud and abuse, usually by asking questions and poring over paperwork.
This year, the agency went a little more cowboy. The GAO created a fictitious law enforcement agency — complete with a fake website and a bogus address that traced back to an empty lot — and applied for military-grade equipment from the Department of Defense.
And in less than a week, they got it.
The equipment was obtained, according to The Marshall Project, from
the obscure 1033 program, which dates back to the Clinton era. Any equipment the U.S. military was not using — including Humvees, grenades, scuba-diving gear and even marching-band instruments — was available to local cops who could demonstrate a need.
The program has transferred more than $6 billion worth of supplies to more than 8,600 law enforcement agencies since 1991.
Brad Friedman of Brad Blog aired a radio segment with Zina Merritt, who, he says, "as Director of Defense Capabilities and Management at the GAO, helped create the disturbingly successful sting operation":
Merritt explains how the sting --- which netted "over 100 controlled items with an estimated value of $1.2 million, including night-vision goggles, simulated rifles, and simulated pipe bombs" --- was carried out, and what she describes as the "systematic breakdown in the controls at every level." The GAO had been tasked by Congress, during reforms to the program instituted under Obama, to probe the DoD unit where fake law enforcement officials were able to obtain real gear with a fake website and fake IDs (which weren't even checked at several of the warehouses when they picked up what could have been lethal equipment....)
"We submitted [the application] online, and all you had to have, in order to do that, was a website as well as a point of contact, a physical location, and actual names --- points of contact --- within the agency. Also, you had to identify how many particular sworn officials that you have as a part of your agency. So we created all of that and submitted it," Merritt tells me, explaining that apparently none of it was actually verified by the DoD. "The actual physical location that we provided was an empty lot," she says.
The GAO's July 2017 report is available here.
The Marshall Project reports that the Obama administration put in place measures to "tighten up" the 1033 program, but that there are indications that the Trump administration is going to remove any recent restrictions on the program.
In 2014, Newsweek ran an article entitled, "How America’s Police Became an Army: The 1033 Program." The report describes how the program received a spate of attention due to the militarized response to people protesting the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In reality, the development of domestic military-style policing has been going on for years. Ferguson was just a highly visible instance of the growing use of military tactics in policing. Newsweek provides some context for the 1033 program:
Faced with a bloated military and what it perceived as a worsening drug crisis, the 101st Congress in 1990 enacted the National Defense Authorization Act. Section 1208 of the NDAA allowed the Secretary of Defense to “transfer to Federal and State agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition, that the Secretary determines is— (A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.” It was called the 1208 Program. In 1996, Congress replaced Section 1208 with Section 1033.
The idea was that if the U.S. wanted its police to act like drug warriors, it should equip them like warriors....By providing law enforcement agencies with surplus military equipment free of charge, the NDAA encourages police to employ military weapons and military tactics.
As examples of how widespread the use of the program is, Newsweek notes,
Police in small towns in Michigan and Indiana have used the 1033 program to acquire “MRAP armored troop carriers, night-vision rifle scopes, camouflage fatigues, Humvees and dozens of M16 automatic rifles,” the South Bend Tribune reported.
And police in Bloomington, Georgia, (population: 2,713) acquired four grenade launchers through the program, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
A 2016 article in Facing South detailed the items the Baton Rouge police department received through the program:
The street protests that have taken place in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, since last week's police shooting death of Alton Sterling outside a convenience store have drawn scrutiny in part for the heavily militarized police response....
Facing mounting calls for transparency, the Pentagon in November 2014 released data detailing the tactical equipment it tracks through the program and for the first time identified the agencies that received items. The Marshall Project created a database of the equipment transfers.
It shows that the Baton Rouge Police Department received military gear valued at over $460,000, including a mine-resistant vehicle and 100 5.56-millimeter rifles, which use NATO-standard ammunition. The Louisiana State Police, which has also been involved in responding to the protests, got over $1 million in equipment through the program, including a mine-resistant vehicle, two observation helicopters, four utility trucks, and 176 5.56-millimeter rifles.
The GAO sting operation proved that the Pentagon can be less than diligent in disbursing 1033 program excess and used military equipment.
However, the larger question remains: Why does such a program exist in the first place? After all, in many areas of the nation, the police frequently behave as if they are an occupying army. They do not need surplus Pentagon gear, including lethal firearms and grenade launchers, to make it official. National efforts should be focused on reducing -- and, in fact, eliminating -- police violence, not continuing programs that escalate bloodshed.