Last year, The Detroit News filed a FOIA request for documents relating to secret military technology, Hailstorm — ostensibly used for tracking ISIS — when it discovered Pontiac Police were using the tech without obtaining warrants in order to track local cellphones.
Despite the size and prominence of that news organization, the county flatly denied the request.
Oakland County Sheriffs Takeover Pontiac
Five years ago on July 1st, Michael Stampfler was named emergency financial manager (EFM) of Pontiac following the previous EFM of Pontiac, Fred Leeb’s, resignation.
Before the year ended, Stampfler proposed eliminating the Pontiac Police Department, entirely.
It’s crucial to note, EFM’s are not elected or subject to checks and balances.
A series of bills signed into law by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder the following March dramatically expanded the powers of emergency financial managers like Stampfler.
Snyder’s stated goal at the time was to “to allow the state to intervene,” and his signature established that state-appointed EFM’s could toss existing Michigan public employee protections out the window — it also granted them powers to dissolve elected city officials of their authority.
These bills update Public Act 72 of 1990, known as the Emergency Financial Manager Act.
“An emergency manager is like a man coming into your house,” said Donald Watkins, a former Pontiac city councilman, according to the New York Times. “He takes your checkbook, he takes your credit cards, he lives in your house and sleeps in your bed with your wife.“ Mr. Watkins added, “He tells you it’s still your house, but he doesn’t clean up, sells off everything and then packs his bag and leaves.”
According to Steven Yaccino from his New York Times article:
The mayor here has no decision-making power. The City Council still holds meetings every Thursday night, though no official business can be conducted. Afterward, the council members are locked out of City Hall until morning, escorted from the building by a janitor
Unfettered by normal checks, balances and the pressures of getting re-elected, emergency managers here have overhauled labor contracts, sold off city assets and privatized nearly every service Pontiac once provided to citizens. Its police force has been outsourced to the county. Its Fire Department belongs to a nearby township. The city’s payroll, once numbering more than 600 workers, now amounts to about 50 public employees. Even parking meters have been sold. All this, and more cuts may be coming, all on the way to balancing the books.
National commentary blasted the Michigan Emergency Financial Manager Act — even to the point of forcing House Speaker Jase Bolger into writing a letter to the press to explain Governor Snyder’s “true intentions.”
Less than four months later, the proposal by Pontiac’s EFM Michael Stampfler to cancel union contracts and eliminate the local police department was accepted by the state. A chunk of Pontiac’s assets, parking meters for example, was sold to cut costs.
The majority of public services were then privatized.
Pontiac’s entire eleven-person police dispatch unit was swiftly laid off — making them the first Michigan public employees to experience the startling extent of Snyder’s broad new power.
The Oakland County Sheriff’s Department would now enforce the law in Pontiac — all to save the city $2 million annually — a mere pittance, oddly enough.
60,000 in Pontiac Can Now Be Tracked by Hailstorm
“It’s all very secretive and information about is tightly controlled, which makes it to have a broad discussion about these tools,” says Alan Butler, a lawyer for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
Picture yourself cruising down Woodward Avenue, all smiles and sunshine until you see it — that red, white, and blue flicker in your rear-view mirror. An Oakland County Sheriff has abruptly merged behind you.
We’ve all felt that initial rush — the terror of being temporarily detained and treated like a child guilty of stealing a cookie. Sitting there, shamed and angry, while awaiting punishment.
But what if you knew that police officer had already opened an investigation into your private cell phone data?
Oakland County commissioners unanimously approved the use of this technology developed by counter-intelligence for the War on Terror and used by the U.S. military to track terrorists.
No questions were asked when the new Pontiac police authorities deployed Hailstorm — a military device meant for tracking ISIS — on American citizens, thus becoming the only department in the state of Michigan to have done such a thing.
Incidentally, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office is less than a mile away from the headquarters of The Pontiac Tribune.
“I don’t like not knowing what it’s capable of,” Oakland County Commissioner Jim Runestad told the Detroit News.
Undersheriff Michael McCabe told The Detroit News that the federal Homeland Security Act bars him from discussing the Hailstorm device — a rather curious detail given the lack of justification for one of the safest counties acquiring such tech in the first place.
This is an incontrovertible invasion of privacy.How Warrantless Cellphone Tracking WorksClick To Tweet
“This allows agents to learn the unique identifying number for each phone in the area of the device and to track a phone’s location in real time,” as the Electronic Frontier Foundation explained.
Stingray is the name of the most common model of the surveillance tool sold by Harris Corporation, Hailstorm is the upgraded version of Stingray.
Oakland county received a $258,370 federal grant and used it to pay for more than half the cost of obtaining such technology.
The rest of the money from Homeland Security was used to train Oakland County Sheriffs how to use use Hailstorm to purchase a vehicle that could contain it and deploy it.
Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald exposed the role played by the National Security Agency in the U.S. drone assassination program — drone strike operators identified terrorist targets based on metadata and cell-phone tracking technologies.
That’s Hailstorm and Stingray.
After that, the CIA or US military orders a drone strike to the location of the cellphone the target is thought to be using.
Don’t forget about the 30,000+ drones soon to be flying over the heads of Americans.
According to public records — as Americans are well aware after Ferguson — police departments across the country are being armed with military weapons and tanks. But they’re also being equipped with these devices that can tap into cellphone data in real time whether they are targets of an investigation or not.
More than 125 police agencies spanning 33 states already use Stingray or Hailstorm for warrantless surveillance of the local communities they’re once expected to “serve and protect.”
Considering the fact that The Detroit News had its Freedom of Information Act request for documents relating to Hailstorm denied — just imagine what we haven’t been told.
I feel it must be repeated once again that these machines were developed by U.S. military and intelligence agencies to track terrorists. You should know by now that anything to do with terrorism must remain secret — forever — because it is a “threat to national security.”
Since ISIS hasn’t taken over the streets in the U.S., it calls into question who, exactly, the government thinks the terrorists are.
Obtaining more information — about what these devices are capable of, how they are currently being used, and when law enforcement should or shouldn’t track your cellphone — will remain secret due to the Homeland Security Act of 2002.
Is There Any Way to Stop Hailstorm?
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union requested information on federal cases in which law enforcement obtained cellphone data without a warrant to track a user’s whereabouts.
After a divided federal appeals court ruled that the Justice Department does not have to turn over information on cases involving warrantless cellphone tracking — the scope of the issue became abundantly clear.
“One such document recently revealed that the Baltimore Police Department has used a cell site simulator 4,300 times since 2007 and signed a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI that instructed prosecutors to drop cases rather than reveal the department’s use of the stingray. Other records indicate law enforcement agencies have used the technology hundreds of times without a search warrant, instead relying on a much more generic court order known as a pen register and trap and trace order. Last year Harris Corp., the Melbourne, Fla., company that makes the majority of cell site simulators, went so far as to petition the Federal Communications Commission to block a FOIA request for user manuals for some of the company’s products.” — Scientific American summarized.
Just last week, the Justice Department announced new policy requiring the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives obtain a warrant to use Stingray or Hailstorm surveillance technology in domestic crime investigations. It does not apply to federal agents, who use Stingray surveillance in “national security” investigations.
The policy outlines: “There may also be other circumstances in which, although exigent circumstances do not exist, the law does not require a search warrant and circumstances make obtaining a search warrant impracticable.”
It applies only to state and local law enforcement, who have already partnered with federal agencies — including the Justice Department.
“In Baltimore, they’ve been using this since 2007, and it’s only been in the last several months that defense attorneys have learned enough to start asking questions,” says Nate Wessler, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “Our entire judicial system and constitution is set up to avoid a ‘just trust us’ system where the use of invasive surveillance gear is secret.“
Detective Emmanuel Cabreja, a member of the Baltimore Police Department’s Advanced Technical Team, revealed that law enforcement have used Hailstorm 4,300 times to emulate a cell tower since 2007.
Cabreja admits using the military technology 600 to 800 times in less than two years as a member of the unit. The FBI required Baltimore Police to sign a nondisclosure agreement to ignore court orders, instructing prosecutors and judges to refuse requests for documents that showcase the use of Hailstorm.
In response to a public records request, the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department (east of Los Angeles) admitted it has deployed a stingray more than 300 times without a warrant, and under questionable judicial authority.
When Will Pontiac be Set Free?
In 2013, the corporate media celebrated when Governor Snyder released Pontiac from emergency management and the city’s Emergency Financial Manager resigned — but what you haven’t been told is that EFM Louis Schimmel appointed himself to a four-member Transition Advisory Board.
Schimmel’s self-appointment to the advisory board was questioned by Pontiac city council officials. There has been no indication for the expected duration of this transition period.
“He’s leaving, that’s sweet. The bitter is the document that was left. Thirteen pages given to us five minutes before a 1 p.m. meeting — I think that was kind of unacceptable,” said Pontiac City Council President Lee Jones.
“There’s no time line for ending this transition board — that’s up to the governor,” said Pontiac City Councilman Kermit Wiliams. “The question is whether this new leadership is going to be accountable to the people, and I don’t know yet.”
Pontiac is still under emergency management.
One of Louis Schimmel’s last moves as EFM of Pontiac was naming Community Development Director Joseph Sobota as city administrator.
At a City Council meeting President Jones said to Sobota: “You’re in the new position of city administrator. You’re a … junior emergency manager.”
Concerned Pontiac residents asked questions about the balance of power during the city’s transition period, and Sobota answered that he would be responsible to the Transition Advisory Board and the board would be responsible to Snyder. Many viewed it as an indefinite delay in returning democratic rule to the city.
The new Transition Advisory Board has powers to veto decisions made by the city council.
“It’s not really a city anymore,” Steve Swift, a Pontiac resident told the New York Times. “There’s nothing left now.”
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