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Spying or Lying: Why Cops Oppose Efforts to Stop the NSA

Opposition to state efforts to stop NSA spying arises from many different quarters. In some states, business interests have raised concerns about the impact on their operations. In some states, simple partisan politics have hindered bills. But no matter what state we consider, we can always count on one source of opposition.

Law enforcement.

State and local police lobbyist represent a powerful force in state legislatures across the country, despite the fact that their arguments generally appeal to the emotions and don’t hold up to rational analysis. In fact, when carefully scrutinized, one can only reach one of two conclusions when pondering why cops refuse to support efforts to stop the NSA.

They either support spying or they’re lying.

Montana serves as the perfect example of how law enforcement lobbyists torpedoe a bill.

When Rep. Daniel Zolnikov introduced HB443 to end state material support and resources federal agencies engaging in warrantless spying, the Montana Department of Justice lobbied aggressively against the bill, claiming that it would prevent state and local police from catching child pornographers. In fact, law enforcement lobbying efforts effectively killed the bill. HB443 passed the full house by a razor-thin margin on the second reading, but failed in the final vote 49-51.

The DOJ position was ludicrous.

A DOJ representative fired the first shot during a committee hearing, claiming the bill would prevent the agency from working with the FBI to catch child abusers. Later, on the House floor, Rep. Rep. Jenny Eck (D-Helena) echoed the argument saying, “This would stop [the Montana DOJ’s] ability to stop child sex trafficking and child pornography.”

As Rep. Jeff Essman (R-Billings) pointed out, the bill would do no such thing. Investigators would retain the ability gather information to prosecute child abuse and kiddie porn by obtaining warrants, or through “judicially-recognized exceptions to the warrant requirements,” as provided for in the bill text.

The legislation did nothing to interfere with legitimate law enforcement activities.  Get a warrant. Get a subpoena. Catch bad guys. That’s how it works in America, and HB443 would have done nothing to stop that.

This leaves us with two options.

Either the DOJ actually collects and utilizes illegally gathered information provided by the FBI, or the DOJ was lying about the impact of the bill because it didn’t want to publicly state its real reason for its opposition.

Either way, we have a big problem.

Consider carefully the Department of Justice claims that HB443 would keep Montana law enforcement from working with the FBI. The bill only banned cooperation with federal agencies that collect data illegally. If the agency gathers data with a warrant, no problem. If the agency gathers data given voluntarily, no problem. If the agency gathers data using judicially recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as a judge-issued subpoena, no problem.

So, if the Montana DOJ claims the bill would have kept law enforcement from information sharing with the FBI, it indicates that the people at the DOJ know state and local police get information from federal agencies gathered outside of those parameters.

Stop and think about it – they admit the federal government does what the bill was meant to stop – illegaly spy on Americans.

In other words, if taken at face value, the law enforcement lobby in Montana argued that it should not be prohibited from using illegally gathered data and violating the Fourth Amendment. Sadly, many Montana representatives either agree with this position, or they simply fell for the fear-mongering and didn’t stop to consider the actual ramifications of the DOJ argument.

Another possibility remains – that the entire DOJ position was a load of crap designed to scare representatives into opposing HB443. After all, claiming child pornographers would run rampant with passage of the bill carries a great deal of emotional impact.

But why would law enforcement lie? Why would the DOJ claim that passage of the bill would tie law enforcement’s hands and prevent prosecution of horrible criminals if they knew it would do no such thing?

The only reasonable explanation is that they opposed the bill for reasons that would not resonate quite so strongly with legislators or the general public.

State and local law enforcement agencies maintain very lucrative partnerships with the feds. They rake in millions of dollars in federal grant money through agencies like Homeland Security. They gain access to free equipment through federal military surplus programs. And they collect piles of cash through asset forfeiture in return for their cooperation in the federal war on drugs.

Consider this: Billings Finance Director Pat Weber told the Billings Gazette that the Billings Police Department received $134,218 in federal drug forfeiture funds during 2013. Data from the Institute of Justice revealed that law enforcement agencies in Montana received more than $4 million in forfeiture money between 2000 and 2008 and the amount was trending up each year.

With all of that money at stake, it would certainly make sense for law enforcement interests to go to great lengths to protect their federal partnerships. Bills like HB443 that challenge federal actions and ban state cooperation with federal agencies could jeopardize those cozy relationships with the feds. Even if the propose law only targets an agency like the NSA, the feds could retaliate and cut funding more generally, or lock the state out of various programs.

So, do law enforcement agencies oppose bills to stop NSA spying because they actually rely on unconstitutional, illegally gather data shared with them by the feds to do their jobs? Or do they oppose bills to stop NSA spying because they fear such legislation will jeopardize the flow of funds and military toys flowing out of the federal spigot?

We may never know the real motives. But either way, we should remain highly skeptical of emotionally charged law enforcement claims that protecting privacy or confronting NSA spying will unleash pedophiles and child abusers on innocent children.

It won’t.

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