Congressman Thompson’s Celestial Snoops
by Mark Scaramella, December 27, 2011
Most people are at least dimly aware that our government murders whole families of vaguely identified terrorists by unmanned aircraft called drones. The drones, which also take high-resolution photos, are operated by a video-raised kid sitting safe in the midwest far, far away from his targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Congressman Thompson wants to apply drone technology to the Mendocino National Forest, presumably only the surveillance part of the technology. Funded by the wine industry and miscellaneous corporations, Thompson has inserted his desire to bring to Mendocino County, "intelligence community assistance to counter drug trafficking organizations using public lands.”
Of course Supervisor Kendall Smith of the drug dependent 4th District and a former aide to the Congressman, dutifully placed Thompson's on the December 6 board agenda's consent calendar from whose obscurity Supervisor Dan Hamburg retrieved it for discussion. Most items on the consent agenda sail on by unchallenged. This one said:
“On behalf of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, I am writing to convey our unanimous support for the inclusion of language authored by our Representative, Congressman Mike Thompson, calling for intelligence community assistance to counter drug trafficking organizations using public lands. … In 2011, Mendocino County experienced the senseless deaths of two beloved community members, as well as a growing number of officer-involved shootings, due to acts of violence associated with illegal grows on private and public forestlands. The increasing incidents of sophisticated operations and escalating violence warrants greater federal assistance to protect our citizens, and combat these illegal activities that endanger and harm our community, our natural resources, and place our law enforcement officers at extreme risk.”
Do we really want sky spies hovering over Mendocino County?
Congressman Thompson’s current local representative, Heidi Cusick-Dickerson, was on hand to defend the letter.
“Thank you very much for putting together this letter of support,” said Dickerson. “This is great."
Ms. Dickerson added, "Congressman Thompson is putting together legislation soon to enhance, to come up with penalty enhancements if people are caught doing illegal drug growing activity on public lands and they are— or trespassing on private lands, so it’s enhancement for trespassing and also for any kind of weapons that they have with them.”
Hamburg explained why he pulled the item from the consent calendar: “I don't intend to support this letter and I'm very concerned about the increasing use of federal intelligence agencies to spy on US citizens. I know that there's talk about foreign drug traffickers. I realize there are foreign drug traffickers here. I believe that we need to do everything we can to roust them out of public and private lands where they don't belong. But what I see happening here is kind of a generalized spying operation which will be carried forth by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and other intelligence offices. I make note of the fact that back in the 1980s state and federal law enforcement were using U-2 spy planes over pot gardens in Northern California and that that effort, at least according to the articles I've read just off the Internet, was not successful at all. I guess my real concern is about this blurring of federal surveillance responsibilities at the local level. I can see some justification for it, but to me the civil liberties concerns, the transparency concerns are just too great for me to support this.... it seems to me that what we're really doing here is domestic spying and some of it is on foreigners but a lot of it is on our own citizens.... I also noted in the letter, the draft letter that the chair wrote, the tie-in between the deaths of Matt Coleman and Jere Melo and this proposed spying operation. I personally don't understand the connection and how having these mechanisms in place would have saved those lives. I understand that probably the majority of the board does support this, but I can't support it.”
Dickerson: “I think the intent of this is intelligence sharing of information that is picked up in gardens and using all of the resources to coordinate a better intelligence gathering and use for interruption and getting rid of the big players so that's probably the intent of this on public lands and to get rid of this illegal activity so people can enjoy the forest again. So I don't see that it's any extension of any kind of surveillance.”
Dickerson conceded that Hamburg's concerns were valid. “Okay, well, I will definitely share your points very well taken. Thank you,” she said.
Sheriff Allman took the podium: “Supervisor Hamburg, while I share many of your concerns, I assure you that the intelligence that Congressman Thompson and I have discussed is going to be built on the five enforcement objectives of the Sheriff's Office, which we have been carrying out for the last three years. And that’s public lands, environmental degradation, that’s water theft, that’s trespass grows, and large commercial grows. And it is absolutely not the intent of the Sheriff's Office nor will it ever be my direction to utilize intelligence gathering for small-time marijuana operations within Mendocino County. I think that we've been through this many times and we are fully aware of the leads that we can follow to investigate those. But if there's one thing that the Full Court Press taught us this summer, it's that people within the public lands are people who have never come up on our radar before. These are not the frequent flyers that we're seeing; these are people who have been getting away with large environmental operations for years that we have never encountered and Full Court Press allowed us to encounter these people and get them into the system. I think what you are going to see in the following year — and I will publicly state this — is a replication of Full Court Press on public lands to large timber tracts, private lands, trespass grows and that's where this intelligence is going to be necessary, but it's certainly not my intent, and discussing this with the Congressman it’s not his intent, to utilize any of this information for anything backyard or small-time growing.”
Hamburg: “Well, Tom, I will accept your statement and I trust you and I know where you come from on this, but this is not just about Mendocino County, you know. This is a federal bill and it can have federal application by using more of the resources of the National Security Agency to spy on Americans and foreigners. But plenty of Americans are going to have data gathered on both their legal and illegal operations, but in many cases legal operations. It's just not something I can support. Maybe get every sheriff in the United States to make this same kind of pledge you are making, then maybe I might feel differently about it.”
Allman: “I don't think 3800 sheriffs are going to do that.”
Hamburg: “It's not for any lack of trust for you.”
Allman said that the "legal ability to obtain this intelligence is already on the books" and that sky spying was "a more nonintrusive way of obtaining this intelligence." The Sheriff went on to say that "Full Court Press proved to us, and so much information came to us that scared me. I don't use the word 'cartels,' I use the words 'organized crime,' and organized crime has been taking advantage of our public lands for years and years and 2011 was our first time to really and truly get a foothold in it. 2012 is going to be followed with a one-two punch, it really is, so, but I really respect your comments.”
Hamburg, laughing: “The only thing I take issue with what you said Tom is that it's non-intrusive. I mean, it's hugely intrusive. I just don't understand how you can say it's non-intrusive. They are using spy equipment now that can tell whether you need to cut your fingernails for God’s sakes.”
Allman: “How about that it's less intrusive than a helicopter at 500 feet?”
Hamburg: “Everything is totally intrusive these days, and in terms of what my constituents expect, I just want to say for the record I have not heard from a single constituent in my district. The first time I even heard about this bill was when I opened this packet on Thursday. I don't know where my constituents are on this but I do know where I am on it and I think the surveillance state is out of hand and I think this is just furthering it. So I can't support it.”
Allman: “As Sheriff of the County I assure you that intelligence gathered will not be used for what you and I would consider to be a low-end marijuana operations. It will not as long as I'm Sheriff. This is going to be for the big-time players. Let’s not forget the environmental part of this. What intelligence shows us is — and Congressman Thompson is obviously supporting this so we are having an academic conversation here, I guess, but the environmental concerns that Full Court Press taught us will be visible in any type of surveillance that we will be getting, so the fact that more environmental money was spent on rehabilitation in the National Forest and what is spent on eradication is very clear that we need to make sure our priorities for the environment are as high as the eradication efforts. Thank you.”
While Hamburg opposed the letter on theoretical grounds, Supervisor John Pinches had more practical objections.
Pinches: “My position for years on this marijuana issue is that it should be legalized. I don't know what the financial analysis of this bill is, but it's going to be no doubt tremendous, I mean that type of surveillance equipment doesn't come cheap. It's not just millions, it comes in the hundreds of millions of dollars price tag. But the reason people are growing marijuana and we talk about illicit drugs, and I think our effort in the Mendocino National Forest was 99% marijuana, was there any other drug? Not very much found, was there, Sheriff? So it's basically marijuana. The best way to eliminate marijuana in our National Forest is to legalize it and then they will grow it probably in Valley counties where they have irrigation water and get better crops. But we seem to be going in the opposite direction. Right now our federal government is spending $1.40 for every dollar it’s taking in. That's massive overspending. Something has to give. We're taking away money from education and our seniors and our kids to support this war on drugs and it's not working and it's been going on for over 40 years and it's not going to get any better. It may get more technical, but, you know, everybody in Northern California is growing pot on public lands, private lands, BLM lands, everywhere. If you don't know where it's at just go out on a county road and go on the edge of the road and stand out and look and you can see what's going on. So I don't know where this millions of dollars of new surveillance equipment is going to make a whole lot of difference. Then you talk about, you know, you have to eradicate the gardens and then you have to arrest them if you can catch them and then we can’t even afford to put them in the jails. Something's got to give here. The legalization of marijuana will save the taxpayers not millions, but billions of dollars and we could redirect those monies to a balanced federal budget or we could put that money into our seniors, our kids, our education, and things that get us something. What did we get for all these eradication efforts in the last 40 years? Tell me what we've got! All we’ve done is kept the price of pot up! That's all we've achieved! Something's got to change!”
Supervisor McCowen defended the draft letter.
McCowen: “I agree with many of the remarks of Supervisor Pinches and I agree that something has to change and I agree that federal prohibition and the war on drugs are failed programs that have done nothing except to inflate the value and the profits associated with the illegal drug trade and arguably make illegal drugs more available to more people across the nation. I fully support an end to federal prohibition because it's been an absolute failure unless you're in the black market trying to make a lot of money off illegal drugs; then it's been a success. But until that change takes place, doing nothing is exactly what the drug traffickers would like us to do and two years ago to this very week we met in Covelo and we agreed unanimously as a board, and I think Supervisor Hamburg was perhaps not quite yet on the board at the time, but the rest of us unanimously agreed that we wanted to take back the National Forest because we had heard from so many people in Covelo about how they could no longer use the forest for the lawful purposes for which it was intended including something as simple as just hiking or horseback riding without getting shot at or at least having warning shots fired over their heads. So, we took a position and we have held true to it for the last two years that we fully supported operation Full Court Press and this is really a very modest step. I think we are misreading what this bill is. This letter is in support of a request or an initiative by Congressman Thompson that the intelligence communities merely perform an assessment of whether they could assist the federal land agencies in gathering intelligence to eradicate illegal drug growing operations on public lands so we should not confuse Congressman Thompson's request with the bill itself. The bill is what it is. And he's merely requesting the insertion of a provision that simply calls on the intelligence agencies to do an assessment and that's where we will find out how much do they think it will cost? Is it feasible? What will the program look like? So this is really just a request to support Congressman Thompson's request that we get the information directly from the intelligence agencies as to whether they think it's feasible for them to provide this information to federal land managers. So I fully support this. Let's get the information and when the program comes back, if it gets included in the bill then we can decide if we favor what they are laying out in terms of how this federal intelligence gathering would operate or not. Again it is specifically targeted at illegal drug grows on public lands, period. So I hope we can all support this.”
Pinches disagreed: “Well if you remember at the meeting in Covelo and the deal down here at Talmage a short time after that about the effort in the National Forest, the idea that I tried to push for was to keep the products out of the National Forest like the plastic pipe and the fertilizer and things like that. We heard resistance even from the US Forest Service. I don't know where that's languishing. We were supposed to get some communication back, Jeanine [looks at County Counsel Jeanine Nadel] and we've never really received that have we?”
Pinches: “So I think we have the intelligence. It's everywhere! I mean, it's everywhere! You want more detailed intelligence than that? Do you want me to name the oak tree that it's under? You want me to name the creek they're pumpin’ water out of? It's everywhere! What we need to do is straighten it out by legalization. I don't see anything being done by our congressmen proposing that. You'd think at least one of our 435 members of Congress, the House of Representatives, would even step out a little bit and say, you know I got this novel idea! Let’s treat this the same way we did prohibition! But no! That's not gonna happen! It's all about spending more money! To get more intelligence! To put in some intelligence bank to do nothing! If you want to attack the problem in the National Forest there are six entry points to the National Forest, or seven. Why don't we try to restrict the amount of plastic pipe and the amendments they use to grow it? Take away the tools! If you take away a carpenter’s hammer you severely restrict how he does his business. You take away a marijuana grower’s tools and you severely restrict him. We have the ability to do that in our National Forest but nobody seems to be interested in that! They want to do all these expensive, sexy things like flying drones over and all this! It costs millions of dollars and still, just because you have the intelligence you still have to get out there and do something about it physically.”
Smith, who never seems much interested in what other people have to say, said impatiently, “We really need to wrap this up.”
Local Green Party activist Jim Houle agreed with Hamburg: “I think what Supervisor Hamburg was concerned about was that this is the Intelligence Authorization Act. This is not some little bitty thing about surveillance of marijuana growers in the national parks. It's a great big thing. This Act covers everything from drones over domestic airspace to God knows what. This is the sort of creep that has taken place ever since 9/11 upon people with Arabic sounding names, dark complexions, one thing or another. It's a much bigger concern that Dan Hamburg has. If it was merely as Supervisor Pinches very clearly pointed out, just getting into our forests and looking for marijuana growers who are screwing the environment up and shooting guns over horseback riders’ heads, this would be very nice. But we’re not— it's all in the same bill. I just want to make that clarification. You're being asked to support the whole damn thing, not just the little bit about marijuana."
Chair Smith pointed out to Mr. Houle that the letter was only about “the inclusion of language that Congressman Thompson has proposed. It's not about the entire Intelligence Authorization Act of 2012 in total.”
Supervisor Brown moved to approve of the letter.
McCowen seconded, but not before adding, “I do agree with Supervisor Hamburg that the reference to the unfortunate murders that took place earlier this year don't necessarily belong in there because it has not been established that it's really related to marijuana growing.”
Smith: “We can strike that first sentence.”
McCowen: “I think we could certainly amend it to say, ‘In 2011 Mendocino County experienced a growing number of officer involved shootings,’ and so just strike out that one phrase. All this is is a letter in support of the congressman's request that the intelligence agencies perform an assessment of how they can assist public land managers in gathering intelligence. It's not, as Chair Smith and I have stated, it's not about any of the provisions currently in the bill. It simply supporting the congressman's very modest request to do an assessment. It's not expending any money. It's not authorizing any action."
We saw nothing in the proposed letter about “assessments.”
Hamburg had to respond: “If Supervisor McCowen would stop making comments, so would I. [Laughs] It's somewhat naive to think that these studies are going to be done and they are going to do all this analysis of what they can figure out but that doesn't really lead to anything. What I read about this bill is that if this provision is included in the bill, and the bill passes and Jim Houle is right, this is a tiny little part of a much larger bill, this could involve the Department of Treasury Intelligence Unit which would be tracking illicit money, this would involve the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency with their satellite imagery on public lands, this could also involve the National Security Agency intercepting public, two-way radio communications, so there are many ramifications to this and to merely state that this is just some innocent little study that's going to be done to try to figure out how they can help poor little Mendocino County, I just think you're not looking at the big picture and I'm voting no.”
The Board vote was 3-2 in favor of sky spying, Pinches and Hamburg dissenting.