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FDNY Spies

Colin Meyn

In New York City, the Department of Homeland Security is training New York City firefighters to assist in gathering intelligence information during routine inspections and emergencies.

In November, the Associated Press reported that in New York, Homeland Security was testing a program called the Fire Service Intelligence Enterprise (FSIE) to help identify material or behavior that may indicate terrorist activities.”

The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) and Homeland Security hosted a September 2007 conference in New York City to discuss plans for the new intelligence program. There, chief officers from fire departments in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and 12 other U.S. cities met with NYC fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta and officials from the Homeland Security Office of Intelligence and Surveillance. Real-time intelligence and information leads to a heightened state of situational awareness,” Scoppetta said at the conference. And situational awareness is key to saving lives.”

We are not training firefighters to be intelligence gatherers or special agents,” says Jack Tomarchio, Homeland Security’s deputy undersecretary of intelligence and surveillance. We are helping to provide crucial information to those people who are often the first responders.”

In 2002, the Bush administration proposed having bus drivers, mail carriers and telephone repair personnel spy on the American public as part of Homeland Security’s Citizen Corps” initiative. The program, called TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System), never made it past Congress. But because the FSIE is managed at the city level, it has bypassed federal regulation altogether. 

The FDNY says the program is demanding nothing new from firefighters. There has always been an expectation that if they see suspicious behavior they should report it,” says FDNY Press Secretary Jim Long. Now we are just trying to share information between other cities with the help of Homeland Security. If we know that they are convenience store owners, and they have maps and blueprints of the Empire State Building, it is obvious that something isn’t right.”

But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) are troubled by the program. When you start recruiting from every government agency for super intelligence, I think we run the risk of lots and lots of false alarms and distracting our firefighters from the job at hand,” says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. If there is a fire in their homes, and people have to make sure there is nothing that will give rise to suspicion – like, in some people’s eyes, perhaps the Quran, or in other people’s eyes, a left-wing newspaper – that is a matter of concern.”

Civil liberties experts say this method of gathering intelligence may violate the right to proper search and seizure. Mike German, a former FBI agent and current ACLU Policy Council on National Security, said on MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” There is actually still a Fourth Amendment.”

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