Huffpost Politics
Andrea Stone Headshot

Mitt Romney Homeland Security Record In Massachusetts: Domestic Spying, Wiretapping

Posted: Updated:
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney holds up an educational pamphlet during a news conference to announce the new
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney holds up an educational pamphlet during a news conference to announce the new "Transit Watch" program, Tuesday, May 4, 2004, at South Station in Boston. The security awareness campaign encourages passengers to report suspicious activity or packages to transit employees. At right is Chief Joseph Carter of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority Police. (AP Photo/Angela Rowlings)

Mitt Romney ran for governor of Massachusetts as the man who saved the 2002 winter Olympics. While much of his focus had been on righting the games in Salt Lake City after its organizing committee became mired in a U.S. bribery scandal, security was also a top priority. These were the first U.S. Olympic games since the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and, taking place just five months after the 9/11 attacks, they presented an enticing and high-profile target for terrorists.

Dealing with those threats in Salt Lake City led Romney not only to overhaul homeland security in the Bay State, but to shape policy on the national level. When he was sworn in as governor on Jan. 2, 2003, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was less than six weeks old, and President George W. Bush's administration was still looking for people who could help it make sense of the new post-9/11 world. Romney stood out.

"Of all the governors that we worked with, he was by far one of the most proactive and engaged in the country," said Joshua Filler, the Homeland Security director of the Office of State and Local Government Coordination from 2003 to 2005. "The Olympics experience exposed him to some of the very real threats faced by the United States in a post 9/11 world. It was clear that experience played a role in his involvement and thinking on homeland security issues."

Now, as the Republican party's presumptive nominee for president, Romney talks mostly about slashing the size of the federal government. More than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, "homeland security" doesn't even rate its own page on Romney's campaign website.

Yet some of the most controversial aspects of the U.S. intelligence apparatus constructed after Bush declared war on terrorism have Romney's fingerprints on them. As governor, he pushed for vast data-mining centers, wiretapping of mosques, spying on foreign students and enlisting average citizens to keep tabs on fellow Americans. Romney has vowed to continue the policies as president.

AN OLYMPIC-SIZED 'INTELLIGENCE NETWORK'

In Salt Lake City, Romney learned about "the complexity of the American law enforcement system and how important it is having it work at the local, state and federal level, working together and keeping power dispersed at all levels," said Cindy Gillespie, a close Romney aide in Salt Lake City and later in Boston. When asked for comment about Romney's homeland security views, the Romney campaign referred the call to Gillespie.

"He’s had hands-on experience in this area," Gillespie explained. "He had an understanding that you could never make security work in this country until you figured out how to integrate intelligence available at every level of law enforcement."

After arriving at the Massachusetts State House, Romney put what he learned into practice. He set up two of the country's first fusion centers, the controversial data-mining hubs that vacuum up and share intelligence from local, state and federal agencies and the private sector to detect terrorist plots. To some, the fusion centers suggest a Big Brother surveillance state.

Romney also pushed for them as chairman of a federal task force on intelligence sharing. "He was definitely instrumental in laying the intellectual framework for fusion centers, and the role of state and local law enforcement in domestic counter terrorism and the need for clear guidelines concerning state and local domestic intelligence gathering," Filler said.

There are now 77 fusion centers nationwide.

But, as in other areas of governance where he tended to go it alone, Romney did not confer with state legislators or the public to address concerns about how the centers would affect privacy and civil liberties. He simply issued an executive order.

To Carol Rose, executive director of the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union, that "penchant for secrecy" characterized Romney's administration. Shortly before he left office, for example, his aides quietly erased all of his administration's electronic records.

Romney has said that as president he would continue to develop the fusion centers "and other innovative systems to collect and systematically analyze information about domestic activities." That confirms the worst fears of Rose, whose organization issued a report on surveillance in Massachusetts that raised concerns about the growing "intelligence network" the former governor established.

Rose said that while the Obama administration has done little to shrink the national security bureaucracy that Bush built, Romney "was an affirmative, unapologetic proponent of building a domestic surveillance infrastructure" that is "really focused on 'the enemy within.'"

"I haven't seen a lot of evolution in terms of his thinking on homeland security," Rose said. "He still seems to be stuck in a hyper-militarized, hyper-surveillance mindset."

By September 2003, Romney decided that average citizens had "fallen into complacency" against terrorism. He said he wanted to enlist Massachusetts residents into an "intelligence network" to help prevent and detect future plots.

As the co-chair of a National Governors Association task force on homeland security and as head of a national Homeland Security Advisory Council task force, he urged state and local agencies to join the federal government in stepped-up intelligence gathering.

''The eyes and ears which gather intelligence need to be as developed in our country as they were in foreign countries during the Cold War,'' Romney said in 2005. ''Meter readers, EMS drivers, law enforcement, private sector personnel need to be on the lookout for information which may be as useful.''

Civil liberties groups objected. Two years earlier, Congress had rejected a similar program that would have encouraged cable installers, home contractors and other citizens to spy on neighbors.

Yet in 2010, soon after a street vendor alerted police to a car bomb in New York's Times Square, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano launched a variant of the idea, the "See Something, Say Something" campaign. One of her top counterterrorism officers, John Cohen, was Romney's senior homeland security adviser in Massachusetts and has also been involved in DHS monitoring of social media sites including Facebook and Twitter.

As a Bush appointee to the Homeland Security Advisory Council, Romney also advocated wiretapping mosques and spying on foreign students in a manner similar to the widespread surveillance of Muslims by the New York Police Department recently uncovered in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series by the Associated Press.

"Are we monitoring that? Are we wiretapping? Are we following what's going on?" Romney asked in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in September 2005.

The governor also stressed the need for community policing and working closely with local leaders to detect radicalization before it turned dangerous. He assured citizens that his counterterrorism strategies preserved constitutional rights.

Others were skeptical. More than 75 religious leaders from a dozen faith groups wrote an open letter to Romney, accusing him of promoting "guilt by association."

"A war fought to preserve and defend our liberty should not claim religious liberty as its victim," they argued in the letter. (Romney has used similar language as a presidential candidate to speak against government funding of contraception.)

Said Rose in an interview: “Romney’s instincts are to use fear of difference as a way to justify using the power of the state to conduct domestic surveillance of people -- not because they’ve done anything wrong -- but because of who they are or where they worship."

MANAGING RISK

Romney's Olympics experience wasn't the only reason he was on so many homeland security committees. The two planes that crashed into New York's World Trade Center took off from Boston's Logan International Airport. It was no coincidence that Logan would become a laboratory for dozens of security programs later introduced at airports nationwide.

But it was Romney's business experience that he used to fix the mess he inherited in the Massachusetts Office of Public Safety, where a federal grand jury was investigating allegations of corruption in the awarding of federal law enforcement grant funds.

The executive office through which Romney planned to remake the state's homeland security organization itself needed to be remade.

Romney brought in Ed Flynn, the former police chief of Arlington, Va., who had rushed to the Pentagon soon after it was hit on 9/11, to head the cabinet department. Flynn, now chief of police in Milwaukee, told The Huffington Post that Romney had "no ideological litmus test" when it came to homeland security.

"He said to me, 'If you take the job, I promise there will no patronage,'" Flynn recalled of his interview with the new governor. "He allowed me to pick an array of experienced people -- most of them Democrats."

Flynn chose as his deputy Jane Wiseman, a veteran of the President Bill Clinton's Justice Department, whose job was to help him overhaul the Office of Public Safety. Together, they instituted an automated, simplified grant application system based on merit, not connections. The Pioneer Institute, a conservative Massachusetts think tank, gave them a good government award.

Mayors and emergency officials in many of the state's 351 towns and cities were less pleased. Romney insisted that federal homeland security grants go through Flynn's office instead of directly to them as in the past. The local officials also chafed when Romney set up five homeland security planning regions that required communities to apply for grants together to avoid duplication and to better target money toward high-risk areas.

"He didn't want five tiny towns to have five command trucks. We insisted on regional grants based on the threats, risks and vulnerabilities. Everybody wasn't equally vulnerable in the state," Flynn said. "He insisted on giving the Boston area a significant piece of the pie," even if that angered community leaders in the rest of the state.

In those early years, there was plenty of pie to go around. As a presidential candidate, Romney has railed against excessive federal spending. But as governor, he was intent on his state getting its share of federal funding.

Romney "pursued that money very aggressively," said former Democratic state senator and congressional candidate Andrea Nucifero Jr., of western Massachusetts.

By the time he left office, Romney had taken in $450 million from DHS in grants for everything from fire prevention to transit security. Washington sent another $50 million to help pay for security at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

In addition, DHS separately awarded more than $110 million in grants to the Massachusetts Port Authority to beef up security at Logan airport and in Boston Harbor -- money Romney gladly accepted, but didn't control.

As Romney's chief Washington lobbyist, Cindy Gillespie helped bring home the bacon for the Bay State. When asked by HuffPost whether the governor's pursuit of DHS money contradicted his oft-stated disdain for federal spending, Gillespie dismissed the inquiry as "not a useful line of conversation for questioning."

Of course, Romney had promised to spend "whatever it takes" to protect his constituents from terrorism. But when he entered office, Massachusetts faced a gaping $3 billion budget deficit. As a result, the governor cut $114 million in state aid to cities and towns, just as they were being required to contribute more to homeland defense.

Local officials complained loudly. Romney himself estimated that Massachusetts and its municipalities had already shelled out at least $40 million on homeland security since 9/11 by the time he became governor. They had hoped to get the money back from Washington. But partisan wrangling on Capitol Hill had stalled federal anti-terrorism funds for states. Romney wrote to then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, urging him to "do everything in your power" to speed the release of money for first responders.

Nine months after taking office, the Romney administration issued a report card giving itself high marks on homeland security. But Democrats pushed back, saying the state was ill-prepared for a terrorist attack or public health emergency. Indeed, as Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) put it, first responders weren't even ready for "Friday night."

Despite the injection of federal funds -- much of it used to buy new vehicles, radios and other equipment -- the state by some measures, including time spent in training exercises, was worse off.

"The problem with federal money is it's not guaranteed. If you cut back state funds with the idea you will make it up with federal funds, you're going to run into trouble," said Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, director of the homeland security and counterterrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "Homeland security money is drying up, and now some of the capabilities we built will no longer be able to be maintained," Nelson said of the challenge faced in Massachusetts and other states.

Romney has said little during his presidential campaign about what he would do to the scope of DHS -- other than promising, like others before him, to unify congressional oversight of the 22-agency department. The last time he ran for president, he called DHS "one big bureaucracy" that needed to be streamlined and restructured to focus on intelligence instead of equipment grants to local first responders.

Gillespie defended Romney's decision to cut the Massachusetts budget at a time of gaping deficits. "Federal funds were not ever intended" to pay for local law enforcement, she said. "He got a lot of criticism ... across a lot of fronts for making the tough choices, but someone has to make those choices."

By October 2006, as Romney was spending more time outside the state laying groundwork for a run for president in 2008, the Democratic majority of a powerful Senate legislative oversight committee released a damning report that detailed serious shortcomings in the state's ability to protect its citizens.

The panel reported that since 9/11, police and fire departments throughout the commonwealth had lost more than 1,100 personnel due to layoffs and attrition. Only 9 percent of police departments and 18 percent of fire departments said they had communications equipment compatible with federal, state and other local agencies.

"The state was not prepared. Cutbacks in public safety, police, fire impacted municipalities in a negative way," said state Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton), then chairman of the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee, which surveyed local officials. "We really didn't see a lot of improvements at all under Romney. A lot of things that were talked about were not implemented," including complete interoperable communications across the state. "It was pathetic, really," he said.

Flynn said "major investments" were made on communications, but "you can hemorrhage gajillions on interoperability that may never be used." Because it was "highly unlikely" emergency responders in Wellfleet on Cape Cod would need to talk to those from Amherst in western Massachusetts, Romney opted for cheaper communications vehicles stationed around the state that commanders could use to talk to each other during a major incident.

SECURITY THEATER

Romney has said that if he's elected president, his homeland security priorities would focus on strengthening cybersecurity and countering domestic radicalization in the Muslim community.

In the area of so-called "homegrown terrorism," Romney has said he would "bolster partnerships with Muslim-American communities [and] build trust in the spirit of 'community policing,'" -- a program Romney's fellow Republicans have sought to cut from the federal budget.

It is unclear how a President Romney would react to an imminent threat or attack on the nation. As governor, he calibrated his response differently at the start of his term than toward the end.

Days before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Homeland Security Secretary Ridge raised the national threat level and called on governors to deploy National Guard troops around bridges, power plants and other critical infrastructure. But Romney and Flynn rejected that as security theater. They dispatched plainclothes personnel instead.

"Citizens of the commonwealth should not see a dramatic change. In most cases, security will be invisible," Romney said at the time, adding that he wasn't interested in the "symbolism" of stationing armed soldiers around Boston. Flynn said his boss "didn't start from the Chicken Little school" of homeland security planning.

By 2006, though, as Romney's attention shifted away from the State House and toward the White House, he opted for show. In August of that year, he became the first governor to activate the National Guard after a plot to blow up transatlantic airliners was foiled. Two months later, he announced that transit police would begin random bag checks for explosives. And, weeks before leaving office, he signed on to the federal Secure Communities program that relies on local police to nab undocumented immigrants with criminal records and hand them over for deportation. His successor, Democrat Deval Patrick, later refused to take part in the controversial program.

Romney's promise to maintain a focus on intelligence and information-sharing tracks with the Obama administration's move toward a more risk-based approach that will eventually phase out a one-size-fits-all security model. The question, some observers say, is how it's done and whether it protects the rights of innocent civilians as it protects them from those who would do them harm.

Many of Romney's positions on counterterrorism were understandable and had wide support in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, said Juliette Kayyem, a former homeland security adviser to Gov. Patrick who later served as a DHS official under Obama.

“To be a governor in 2002 or 2004 was a very different atmosphere than to be a governor, let alone the president, in 2012," Kayyem said. "A lot of lessons have been learned and the threat is very different. Given that a lot has changed, consistency is not necessarily a compliment. This is an area where you want him to flip-flop."

Around the Web

Romney: Remake Homeland Security - politics - Decision '08 - Mitt ...

Mitt Romney Announces Support of Former Pennsylvania Governor ...

EXCLUSIVE: Mitt Romney to Receive Secret Service Protection ...