Some Parts of Thanksgiving Have Escaped the Surveillance State
Federal agencies don’t seem as worried about some events as others
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Nov. 22, 2016, Ellen DeGeneres tweeted a picture of herself outside the White House. Having forgotten her photo I.D., the comedian and talk show host was having trouble getting in to receive her Presidential Medal of Freedom.
White House officials eventually cleared things up and DeGeneres got her award — along with another artful speech — from Pres. Barack Obama. Though amusing and understandable, the event was a subtle reminder that no one — no one — can get away from ever-expanding security precautions.
And yet, some portions of the Thanksgiving holiday have escaped from some of the excesses of the what some have dubbed the “surveillance state,” according to responses War Is Boring received via the Freedom of Information Act.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, security concerns and surveillance — physical and electronic — exploded in the United States. Particularly in New York City and Washington, D.C., local, state and federal agencies began seriously looking out for all sorts of threats … and they still do.
Since 2002, the response has included a nebulous maze of no-fly lists, phone and email monitoring, undercover informants and more. More than a decade later, law enforcement and intelligence agencies across the United States keep watch for potential terrorist threats at a wide variety of mundane public gatherings.
Between 2002 and 2011, the Department of Homeland Security kept Americans aware — and broadly anxious — of the ever-present danger of terrorism with a color-coded alert system.
Not everyone was thrilled about this trend. In 2013, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden famously leaked dozens of documents giving a granular picture of American spying efforts at home and abroad.
“Unfortunately, many … believe we have to be able to do anything, no matter what, as long as there is some benefit to be had in doing so,” Snowden told The Guardian in September 2016. “That is the logic of a police state.”
So, War Is Boring decided to use to the powers of FOIA to see just how far cops and spies had taken their increased powers. Were annual holiday spectacles subject to the excessive scrutiny?
On Nov. 9, 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation responded to one of our requests, declaring it could find no “aerial surveillance footage” of the 2015 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Each year, a train of floats, huge balloons and a gaggle of celebrities and other groups march through downtown New York City.
Security is always a major factor. “As you’ll recall, last year the route was lined with hundreds of blocker cars, very much similar to what we do along presidential routes,” John Miller, the New York Police Department’s top intelligence and counter-terrorism official, said earlier in November 2016.
With its own fleet of secretive spy planes, the FBI could have monitored the show. In August 2016, the bureau released footage the aircraft shot during protests in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray.
However, “based on the information you provided, we conducted a search of the Central Records System,” the FOIA letter explained. “If you have additional information … please provide us the details and we will conduct an additional search.”
“The FBI is the worst agency in the government when it comes to responding to FOIA,” journalist and “FOIA terrorist” Jason Leopold said in a March 2016 interview. “ Whenever you file a request with the FBI, you should always ask them to conduct a cross-reference search.”
So, we sent along additional information of where video clips might exist and mentioned the August 2016 release of surveillance footage from Baltimore. On Nov. 22, 2016, the Bureau sent a second response, reiterating its position that no one could find any overhead film from the parade in Manhattan.
A similar request for the 2016 parade may turn up different results. On Nov. 11, 2016, the terrorist group Islamic State’s online propaganda magazine Rumiyah called the event an “excellent target.”
Another important U.S. Thanksgiving tradition is the White House’s annual turkey pardon. Since 1947, representatives from farm lobby groups have presented the sitting American president with one or more turkeys, which are then spared the fate of ending up on someone’s dinner table.
On Nov. 23, 2016, Pres. Barack Obama offered this reprieve to two turkeys, named Tater and Tot. The White House treats the yearly event as heartwarming and fun.
“It is my great privilege — well, it’s my privilege — actually, let’s just say it’s my job — to grant them clemency this afternoon,” Obama joked during the televised ceremony. “As I do, I want to take a moment to recognize the brave turkeys who weren’t so lucky, who didn’t get to ride the gravy train to freedom — who met their fate with courage and sacrifice — and proved that they weren’t chicken.”
War Is Boring sent a separate FOIA request to the Department of Homeland Security to see if there was any specific risk assessment for the 2015 pardon gathering. The Office of Intelligence and Analysis works with local, state and federal agencies to break down potential threats and concerns.
Earlier in 2016, Homeland Security teamed up with the Pentagon, the FBI, the U.S. Secret Service, the Federal Protective Service, the U.S. Capitol Police and three different Pennsylvania law enforcement groups to produce one of these reports ahead of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. We obtained the cover sheet of that document through a separate FOIA request.
“We conducted a comprehensive search of files within the Office of Intelligence and Analysis … for records that would be responsive to your request,” a Homeland Security employee wrote in a response letter dated Nov. 14, 2016. “We were unable to locate or identify any responsive records.”
It’s entirely possible these analysts skipped over the event again this year. Obama made his remarks and sent Tater and Tot off to “Gobbler’s Rest” at Virginia Tech’s Animal and Poultry Sciences Department without incident.
Of course, neither of these responses mean there hasn’t been any security planning for or surveillance of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or the turkey pardon. The New York Police Department’s statements show it clearly takes the safety of parade-goers very seriously. Among the security precautions in 2016 are “sand-filled trucks, radiation detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs and heavily armed officers,” according to Reuters.
Similarly, Ellen’s experience shows that the Secret Service and White House officials have strict protocols to keep dangerous individuals away from the president and other dignitaries.
However, the fact that the FBI and Homeland Security haven’t been using their resources to analyze and monitor these events is still significant. In particular, the FBI has become well known for spending precious time and money spying on peaceful activists, investigating satirical websites and many more dubious activities.
In 2010, the Department of Justice’s top watchdog issued a scathing review of a number of the bureau’s surveillance of domestic advocacy groups including Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The investigators found agents had been sent to watch these groups as “make work” assignments because of an apparent lack of other, more useful work.
In one case, the FBI’s Pittsburgh field office sent Special Agent Mark Berry to monitor an anti-war rally the Thomas Merton Center had organized in the city. The watchdog was not happy with the official explanation.
“At the time the FBI was being criticized for this surveillance, and the true reason — that Berry was monitoring the Merton Center anti-war rally in response to a ‘make work’ assignment — was not helpful,” the report stated matter-of-factly.
It seems that some parts of the Thanksgiving weekend are thankfully free of both this “make-work” and overbearing counter-terrorism operations.