Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.

Friday, June 30, 2006

What Happened in Worley?

Air conditioners, old gaming machines, and light fixtures are not regulated explosive materials, so they can probably be ruled out as the cause of the incident that killed two employees at the Coeur d'Alene Tribal Casino north of Worley yesterday. However, articles today in The Spokesman-Review and the Coeur d'Alene Press variously suggested "fireworks," "electronic detonators," and a propane tank may have been stored in the container. Quite properly, none of the investigative agencies will speculate on the cause and origin of the fatal fire, preferring to wait until their investigations have been completed to report substantiated findings.

Kootenai County Sheriff's spokesflak Ben Wolfinger reportedly said it wasn't yet known if fireworks were being stored in the container. That's inaccurate. Someone knew, because if explosives were being stored in the container, someone put them there. The real question is whether the two deceased victims and all other employees whose duties caused them to open and enter any of the containers knew. It would have been grossly irresponsible at best and criminally negligent at worst for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and the Casino to have stored explosive materials in the containers without providing safety training and education for employees whose duties required them to be in or near the containers. In other words, the Tribe had a duty to inform employees if explosive materials were stored in the containers, and it had a duty to provide proper safety and handling training for employees who might have been exposed to the materials during the performance of their duties.

One year ago today, June 30, 2005, I posted Harmless Fireworks or Lethal Explosives? That post explained "fireworks" are regulated explosive materials. Any explosive materials, including "fireworks" should be handled only by qualified, trained explosive handlers or pyrotechnicians. As Spokesman-Review staff writer Jody Lawrence-Turner noted today in her article headlined Fireworks mishaps altered lives, things go wrong even for qualified, trained professional pyros.

We need to know exactly what happened in Worley.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Stopping Pixel Piracy

Digital imagery devices, both still and video motion cameras, are commonplace. They are so prevalent, their applications so varied, that we have somewhat become desensitized to their near omnipresence. Investigators, both private and public, use digital imagery devices concealed in or under items of apparrel and in aircraft and satellites. Thieves use high-quality, small-package video inside theaters to pirate the on-screen movies or record the live stage presentations for illegal sale.

Recognizing that there are undesirable applications for digital imagery devices, the ramblin' wrecks from Georgia Tech have begun to develop a device that will detect and then block digital imagery devices. Stop them dead in their pixels. The prototype and the research behind it is described in No Pictures Please: Researchers Develop System to Thwart Unwanted Video and Still Photography, an article appearing in the June 17, 2006, issue of Georgia Tech Research News.

The research raises an interesting question of social and public policy. If the technology works effectively in a controlled setting to counter unwanted digital imagery surveillance, could it be expanded to work in an open environment to block legally authorized digital imagery surveillance? Could it block overhead imagery by manned and unmanned aircraft and satellites?

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Treasure Valley Partnership

On June 22, 2006, the Idaho Department of Correction (IDOC), Boise State University (BSU), and the Boise Valley Habitat for Humanity (HfH) announced an innovative and courageous partnership to accelerate HfH's build schedules for lower-income housing while at the same time helping state prisoners become productive community members after they are released.

The partnership will provide selected minimum custody Idaho prison inmates with meaningful vocational training in carpentry at BSU. Those same inmates, supervised by vocational instructors trained in offender management techniques, will then apply their vocational skills at HfH projects in the Treasure Valley.

According to press relase documents released by the three partners on June 22, 2006, the Center for Workforce Training at BSU partners with the IDOC to provide high-quality carpentry training for selected minimum-custody state offenders to give back to the community while at the same time learning a needed vocation. Access to stable employment that produces a liveable income is a critical factor for successfully reintegrating formerly incarcerated prisoners into their communities. The offenders are nearing their release date from prison. It was stated earlier but bears repeating: The offenders are working under close supervision by vocational instructors who have also been trained in offender management techniques.

One benefit not emphasized in the June 22 press releases is that since the offenders are working on HfH houses in the community, the offenders' demeanor can be scrutinized by members of that community. What the community members hopefully see is an offender working hard, working productively, and working peacefully to help others in need in their community. The understated benefit, it seems to me, is that this project educates the public and helps us better understand that successful offender reintegration is possible. As Pam Sonnen, IDOC administrator of operations, said, "This is real work in the real world, not just a mock-up or model, and it teaches offenders accountability and industry standards."

Since the press releases and associated information were not available on the IDOC, BSU, or HfH websites at the time this post was prepared, I requested permission to quote directly from the material. Some of the information from "Common questions and answers about our partnership" is reproduced here by permission:

Why would Habitat for Humanity want to be involved in this partnership?

The mission of Habitat for Humanity is to create stronger communities. We are sending a very powerful and redemptive message by providing people with an opportunity to give back to the community they may have originally offended. In addition, IDOC offenders are able to provide specialized construction skills that might otherwise add to construction costs, such as concrete work.

Why are Boise State University and the Idaho Department of Correction educating convicted felons with vocational skills?

National research is very clear that stable employment is one of the most mportant factors in keeping an offender from having repeat contact with the criminal justice system after they're released. Ninety-eight percent of all offenders eventually return to their communities and become our neighbors. Ensuring they have a job skill greatly increases the chance they will become productive members of our communities.

Is it a community safety concern to have offenders working outside prison walls?

The 10 offenders on this project are under constant supervision and both instructors on site are fully trained in offender management techniques. All offenders participating in this partnership are classified as minimum custody and have undergone a screening process.

How does this partnership fit in with Boise State University's vision for the future?

This program is an excellent example of how the Selland college of Applied Technology already provides classes that would normally be considered a part of the community college function. It demonstrates that Boise State University is well-positioned to provide those services to the Treasure Valley and surrounding southwest Idaho counties.

The question that must be asked is this: Could a partnership program like this work in northern Idaho?

North Idaho College has the vocational training courses. There is a need for skilled apprentices and journeymen tradesmen in northern Idaho.

Habitat for Humanity and other organizations committed to creating stronger communities are here.

Unfortunately, what Kootenai County lacks is an IDOC custodial facility. It's important to remember that the offenders participating in the Treasure Valley partnership are still incarcerated prisoners. At the end of each day's training and work, they are returned to an IDOC facility. Idaho Correctional Institution - Orofino is the closest state prison, but it is 176 miles and 3 hours away. Idaho's only community work centers (CWC) are in Nampa, Boise, Twin Falls and Idaho Falls.

Some years ago the IDOC proposed putting a CWC in Kootenai County. The CWC would have housed low-risk offenders awaiting or being considered for parole. During the day, they would have been working under IDOC supervision in the community. When not working, they would have been incarcerated under IDOC supervision. The Kootenai County Board of Commissioners fought against the CWC, and they prevailed.

In my October 17, 2005, post entitled Why Not a Regional Criminal Justice Center, I proposed that Washington and Idaho officials meet and discuss building a regional justice center on the Washington-Idaho border. That center would include post-sentence jail facilities, a regional public safety training facility, and an IDOC CWC. As I expected, this idea went nowhere.

But now there's again an opportunity. In The Spokesman-Review on Sunday, June 25, 2006, staff writerBetsy Z. Russell reports that IDOC Director Tom Beauclair "... is working on a request for more than $300 million in new prison construction to present to next year's Legislature." Her article, headlined Calls mount for new prisons, reports that Director Beauclair has identified the need for a 1,500-bed prison in Idaho.

But why would anyone want a state prison or CWC in northern Idaho? How could an IDOC facility benefit the community as well as the offenders? These are fair questions.

Ninety-five to 98 percent of state-incarcerated offenders will be released back into their communities. The receiving communities have little to say about that. Released offenders are coming, so it stands to reason that the receiving communities will feel and be safer if they can help released offenders not reoffend.

Released offenders need an internalized personal commitment to not reoffend. That commitment, assuming it exists, will be positively reinforced if the offenders have stable, liveable-wage jobs. They need safe, affordable housing. They need a level of social structure and support provided by the community. Without all these their chances of reoffending in the receiving community goes up. If the Treasure Valley partnership works as planned, a significant part of the success will come from the offender participants being eased back into their community rather than dumped into it with little community involvement. A state prison or CWC (maybe both?) in our area would help that ease-on-back transition to be successful. That benefits the receiving community.

A state prison's and CWC's population counts toward the area's census. That influences federal funding and support from census-based programs.

A state prison or a CWC employs people who live the the surrounding community. Those employees support the community socially and economically.

Receiving communities have very little say about who they get when offenders are released. However, by supporting IDOC efforts to educate offenders, get and keep them clean and sober, provide them with meaningful employment, make safe affordable housing available, and provide them with supporting social structure, communities can influence the probability of offenders being successfully reintegrated into their community as producers rather than predators. That puts the "community" in community corrections.

If nothing else, every successfully reintegrated former offender who does not return to prison means there is a cell for one offender who absolutely must be incarcerated because he represents a danger to the community or to himself. Successful reintegration reduces jail and prison overcrowding. That alone is reason to encourage programs like the Treasure Valley partnership.

Addendum: June 28, 2006: The IDOC press release announcing Habitat for Humanity, Boise State University, and the Idaho Dept. of Correction Partner for a Stronger Community is now available on the IDOC website.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Not Your Father's Kootenai County

I hope everyone read The Spokesman Review staff writer Erica Curless's article Outgoing planning chief reflects in the Saturday, June 17, 2006, newspaper. Midway through the article, departing Kootenai County Planning Director Rand Wichman observed, "The face of the community is changing. This is not the laid-back, easy-going community it once was. The public has become to some degree fed up and frustrated. They're much more demanding."

Exactly! Wichman got it, but unfortunately many Kootenai county and city leaders have not. To paraphrase General Motors' slogan for its now-extinct Oldsmobile, "This is not your father's Kootenai County." It hasn't been for several years, but local government leaders bewitched, blinded, and bedazzled by growth and short-term prosperity didn't notice the change. They've cheered the influx of developer dollars but ignored the increasing expectations of the residents delivering the tax dollars.

People moving here have the same reasonable expectations for high-quality public service and government administration as people in Manhattan, Beverly Hills, West Palm Beach, Cleveland, Fargo, Cheyenne, Omaha, Anchorage, and Aspen. They haven't spent their entire lives in northern Idaho. They've been other places and seen other things. It's likely they've experienced bad government and good government and have learned how to distinguish between the two.

Kootenai County's just-departed planning director isn't the only public official aware of the change in public expecations.

The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) is responsible for providing introductory and advanced training to over 80 different federal law enforcement agencies. Its clients live and work throughout the United States and its territories. So it can respond to the needs of its partner agencies, FLETC monitors the public's changes in expectations for law enforcement. The scope and magnitude of the changes reported to it were discussed in the FLETC 2000-2005 Strategic Plan. On page 9 of that plan under the topic "Changes in Expectations," FLETC Director Ralph Basham said, "Faced with real problems affecting the very fabric of society, the United States is relying increasingly on law enforcement solutions. For example, the dramatic increase in the number of law enforcement officers mandated by Congress, the enhanced funding for the 'war on drugs,' and significantly increased spending for counterterrorist activities exemplify the expectation on the part of policy makers that law enforcement efforts will ameliorate societal problems. In other contexts, law enforcement officers are increasingly being called on to act as 'problem solvers,' taking on roles quite different from those associated with traditional enforcement."

The FLETC Director continued, "While being called on to address a widening array of social problems, law enforcement agencies are also being held to heightened levels of scrutiny and accountability. In today's world an officer must ensure that his or her actions pass not only the test of legality, but they must also pass the more subjective tests of appropriateness and propriety. The citizenry expects law enforcement personnel to act with professionalism and is quick to react with complaints and lawsuits when this expectation is violated."

Compare what Rand Wichman said last week with what Ralph Basham said six years ago. Two different observers at different times from different levels of government and from different professional career fields noted the public's expectations have changed. Those expectations are for an increase in quality of service. People are not demanding more for less; they're demanding better for less. More precisely, they're demanding better value for their tax dollar. If local officials won't or can't meet the public's reasonable expecations, the public will install officials who can.

No, this is definitely not your father's Kootenai County any longer.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Report: FEMA Aid Waste, Fraud, and Abuse Report

On June, 14, 2006, The Spokesman-Review carried an Associated Press story headlined FEMA aid fraud discovered. The wire service story was based on US Government Accountability Office testimony before the House Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Homeland Security.

Here's a link to the entire 30-page testimony entitled Hurricanes Katrina and Rita Disaster Relief - Improper and Potentially Fraudulent Invididual Assistance Payments Estimated to Be Between $600 Million and 1.4 Billion.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Health Care Fraud

In its Tuesday, June 13, 2006, online edition The Spokesman-Review has an article headlined $80,000 AMR fine proposed. AMR is American Medical Response, a medical transportation company headquartered in Greenwood Village, Colorado, and with offices nationwide. AMR has an exclusive contract to provide ambulance service inside the city of Spokane, Washington.

After reading the online article Monday night, I posted a comment on Huckleberries Online, the weblog managed by The Spokesman-Review associate editor and columnist Dave Oliveria. Shortly thereafter, another commenter characterized my comments about the Spokane mayor's response as a cheap shot. That's fine, but then in a followup post, the same commenter asked, "... who got overbilled? Premera Blue Cross?"

That's really a great question, because it implies that overbilling insurance companies is tolerable if not completely acceptable. No, it is neither tolerable nor acceptable, and if it is done knowingly and intentionally, it can be insurance fraud. And apparently insurance fraud is a pretty big deal in Washington State. This year's state legislature saw the need to propose the state’s first fraud bureau and add a fraud prosecutor.

But insurance fraud is not just a Washington State problem. It's also a national problem. Take a look at the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Financial Crimes Report to the Public released in May 2005. Pay particular attention to the Health Care Fraud section, and note the "Ambulance Initiative" under "Significant Cases."

Since Medicare is a major insurer providing compensation to claimants, it's also a good idea to learn something about Medicare fraud.

Local agencies (e.g., fire departments) administering medical transportation contracts need to better understand what to look for to prevent mixups or outright fraud. The September 1, 2000, issue of Fire Chief magazine explained to its readers How to avoid common ambulance billing pitfalls. It's an article worth reading.

Was the commenter wrong when s/he implied that overbilling was acceptable or at least tolerable and we should just move on after the offenders make restitution and possibly pay a punitive fine? Yes, but according to a Coalition Against Insurance Fraud report, s/he's not alone in thinking that. That acceptance is one reason why health care fraud is on the increase.

Unless competent, experienced fraud investigators and auditors "follow the money", we won't know for sure if health care overcharges are just mistakes or crimes. The public, the insurance industry, and the health care providers are entitled to know. It's our money.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Why Would Anyone Want the Job?

The City of Spokane's solicition for police chief applicants closed on June 2. According to an MSNBC - KHQ news story, the nationwide search attracted 43 applicants.

My question is: Why would anyone qualified for the Spokane Police Chief position want it?

Surely any applicant worthy of consideration would research the Spokane city government's and police department's history. It wouldn't even take much research. S/he would only have to read The Spokesman-Review's series of articles about the firehouse sex scandal and the police department's investi-bungle to see that top-to-bottom rehabilitation is essential if the Spokane Police Department is ever to regain public trust and confidence.

With only a little more research, prospective applicants would see that the City of Spokane is unlikely to give the new police chief the authority s/he would need. Housecleaning is going to make a lot of police department employees uneasy. An uneasy employee may be one who financially supports and votes for the current administration's opponents. Incumbent officials like to be able to say (sometimes truthfully, often not) they have the support of "their" police department.

Also, the police chief position is highly visible. Positive visibility contributes to political power, and political power residing in an honest, articulate, educated, determined, publicly-accessible Spokane police chief represents a political threat to some elected officials. Spokane's elected officials do not want a police chief who is smarter, more competent, and perhaps more honest than they are. Yet that's exactly the kind of chief Spokane needs.

The in-bred applicants already know how the Spo-political game is played, so to the out-of-town applicants, I'd say, "Do your homework before you're interviewed." And to the applicant who's finally offered the job, I'd ask, "Are you really sure you want it?"

Monday, June 05, 2006

Fusion Centers

If we learned one thing from the attacks on September 11, 2001, it's that agencies at all levels of government need to do a better job of exchanging timely information. That lesson learned has spawned fusion centers.

In fed-speak, "fusion" is the "... process of managing the flow of information and intelligence across levels and sectors of government. It goes beyond establishing an intelligence center or creating a computer network. The fusion process supports the implementation of risk-based, information-driven prevention, response, and consequence management programs. ... The fusion process turns information and intelligence into actionable knowledge."

A fusion center is a "... collaborative effort of two or more agencies that provide resources, expertise, and/or information to the center with the goal of maximizing the ability to detect, prevent, apprehend, and respond to criminal and terrorist activity."

"The ultimate goal of a fusion center is to provide a mechanism where law enforcement, public safety, and private partners can come together with a common purpose and improve the ability to safeguard our homeland and prevent criminal activity. A police officer, fireman, or building inspector should not have to search for bits of information. They should know to call one particular place—the jurisdiction's fusion center."

With that goal in mind, "... the U.S. Department of Justice's (DOJ) Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative's (Global) efforts to develop fusion center guidelines, the Criminal Intelligence Coordinating Council (CICC), in support of the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), Office of Justice Programs (OJP), recommended the creation of the Intelligence Fusion Center Focus Group. This focus group was tasked with recommending guidelines specifically for the law enforcement intelligence component of fusion centers."

The outcome of that recommendation was the production of two guidelines:

Fusion Center Guidelines: Law Enforcement Intelligence Component

Fusion Center Guidelines—Law Enforcement Intelligence, Public Safety, and the Private Sector

More guidelines will be produced as the project continues.

Friday, June 02, 2006

"That's Classified!"

Almost daily we read about national security and classified information in the newspapers or see and hear about it in broadcasts. What was Valerie Plame's job with the CIA? What about NSA conducting warrantless electronic surveillances against US citizens in the US?

The usual answer? "Can't talk about it. National security. (Loud harrumph!) Classified, you know."

Actually, many people don't know. What the heck is national security information? Just what does "classified information" really mean?

Now and again a droll, boring military manual serves the public well as a primer about some esoteric topic. And surely manuals written for lawyers must be near the top of drollness and boringness. Still, here's one worth looking at.

The Judge Advocate's Handbook for Litigating National Security Cases - Prosecuting, Defending, and Adjudicating National Security Cases

Clearly this manual is written as a guide for military lawyers, not for US Attorneys, but the fundamental definitions apply to both. Thankfully, the basic information that will be of some interest to most readers is in Chapters One and Two.

Chapter One answers questions such as

  • What is classified information?
  • What is the substance of classified information?
  • What are classification markings, what do they really mean, and how are they applied?
  • Who has classification authority? (Yes, the Vice President does have it.)

Chapter Two makes the distinction between compartmented information and classified information. It explains

  • Special Access Programs (SAP)
  • Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI)
  • SCI Control Systems

The explanations are remarkably clear and easily understood. That's odd since it is, after all, a US government-produced manual.