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My Turn
Other Views from Those in the Know
Larry Evans
Associate Editor
Drones Over Tampa? Almost Happened

Tampa will host the Republican National Convention in 2012.

To provide security, the city has requested $55 million from the federal government.

That’s pocket change in a nation that spends many billions of dollars a year for security.

The September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon quickly made security a growth industry inside and outside government. An important new book titled “Top Secret America” says there are 1,300 federal agencies and nearly 2,000 companies involved in homeland security, warfare, weapons development and intelligence gathering.

The book has a subtitle: “The Rise of the American Security State.” Authors Dana Priest and William M. Arkin write that the United States now has two governments.

We see one government. It is the government we learned about in school. It has executive, legislative and judicial branches.

The other government is a “parallel top secret government” that has “mushroomed in less than a decade into a giant, sprawling universe of its own, visible to only a carefully vetted cadre.”

Americans should be troubled by that government in the shadows, but the issue gets little attention. No presidential candidates are talking about it. As for the dysfunctional Congress, there is little discussion in either chamber about secret government, let alone oversight.

Public discussion arose in Tampa and neighboring St. Petersburg in October after the St. Petersburg Times reported that Tampa officials were seeking bids for two drones, the sort of “unmanned aerial vehicles” used by the U.S. agencies in war zones for surveillance. To deploy drones to monitor the action of GOP convention protestors would be like “hitting a gnat with a sledgehammer,” former City Councilman John Dingfelder said.

Tampa police subsequently said drones would be too expensive and inefficient.

Reasonable people might disagree on whether drones are a good idea for domestic use. People might also differ on whether Tampa officials need 164 cameras capable of reading a number 3 inches high at 300 meters. The cameras were also on a shopping list under consideration.

Tampa’s ongoing decision-making process can only be helped by open discussion about potential and perceived security threats, the cost-effectiveness of available tools, and the need to protect civil liberties.

On the national level, there is little public discussion about Top Secret America.

Americans “have shelled out billions of dollars to turn the machine of government over to defeating terrorism without ever really questioning what they are getting for their money,” write Priest and Arkin in their book, which had its genesis in a series of stories they wrote for The Washington Post.

The shadow government increasingly consists of private companies that, among other things, gather intelligence, provide security in war zones, develop and use surveillance technologies. Employees of those companies are among the 854,000 Americans who hold “top secret” security clearances.

Security-related companies tend to locate near government operations. Tampa, for example, has companies that work with the Pentagon’s Tampa-based headquarters for U.S. Central Command and the Joint Special Operations Command.

Former CIA Director Leon Panetta, who is now secretary of defense, voiced concern that much of the nation’s intelligence gathering is now handled by private companies. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised a similar concern.

The purpose of a company is to make money for its stockholders, a goal that can cloud objectivity. Also, when agencies bring in private companies, those companies tend to hire away the best and most experienced government employees. Then, too,  If corporate profits depend on war and surveillance, justifications will be made for war and surveillance.

Also, the security industry will seek to sell their products to American communities as long as nobody cares to provide scrutiny.

Priest, who won a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital, writes in the introduction to “Top Secret America” that “only more transparency and debate will make us safe from terrorism and the other serious challenges the United States faces. Terrorism is not just about indiscriminate violence. As its name suggests, it is about instilling paranoia and profound anxiety. It aims to disrupt economies and inspire government clampdowns. It is time to close the decade-long chapter of fear, to confront the colossal sum of money that could have been saved or better spent, to remember what we are truly defending, and in doing so, to begin a new era of openness and better security against our enemies.”

Nothing will change unless the American people question the government authorities who claim to protect them.

Larry Evans is associate editor of Living on the Suncoast, where this column was originally published.

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by Dr. Radut.