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New documents reveal extent, cost of BPD’s secret surveillance strategy

Dan Atkinson

After more than 100 white supremacists gathered in Boston and marched through the city over Independence Day weekend, city and law enforcement officials said they “did not have intelligence” that the nationally-known Patriot Front group was coming to the Hub — despite paying a government contractor with CIA ties millions of dollars for exactly that kind of information.

Documents obtained through a Freedom Of Information Act request show how the Boston Police Department has used secretive contracts to pay more than $5 million to Centra Technology as it hires analysts for the controversial Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), which tried to create a massive surveillance network across the metro area last year.

The documents offer a closer look into how BPD spends millions on surveillance programs with little oversight. Civil liberties advocates said city officials need to crack down on a program that violates residents’ rights yet is not intended to actually protect residents, regardless of how much money is spent.

“It’s not surprising that BRIC, given its history of targeting Black, Muslim, and immigrant communities, would not pay attention to a group like Patriot Front,” Fatema Ahmad of the Muslim Justice League said. “It’s futile to expect them to tackle white supremacist violence.”

“I would ask the City Council and the mayor to take a very hard look at what these so-called intelligence operations are producing for the people of Boston,” added Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at ACLU Massachusetts. “There’s simply no evidence that this provides any value to the people of Boston.”

Building BRIC

According to the BPD website, BRIC “works at the forefront of intelligence collection and analysis” and provides information that “pinpoints areas of crime, shootings and gang violence, as well as helping to identify major players and ex-offenders returning to our neighborhoods.” An older summary offers more detail, saying the center is the metro Boston area’s primary focal point for “the gathering, receipt, analysis, and sharing of threat related information among federal, state and local public safety partners.”

Furthermore, the “combination of these two perspectives supports a vetting and analytic development process that creates an in-depth, high-quality intelligence production and assessment capability.”

In summary and practice: BRIC is all about conducting surveillance, and lots of it. The center spends thousands of dollars a year on cameras and software, according to an ACLU analysis, while an investigation by that organization found BPD officers working for BRIC spied on antiwar activists, including at an event organized by a former Boston city councilor. BRIC also retained the reports it compiled on those groups for years, in violation of federal regulations.

Last year, the Dig broke the story of the BRIC trying to link more than 1,000 surveillance cameras across the Metro Boston Homeland Security Region — which covers Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Quincy, Revere, Somerville, and Winthrop, as well as Boston — creating a network that would let users watch live and recorded footage remotely and that could add “quick deploy cameras.” At the time, the City Council was pushing a new law that would require council approval for any new surveillance technology, and then-Mayor Kim Janey “paused” the surveillance camera link plan after outrage from civil liberties groups.

That law has since passed and will go into effect this summer, theoretically giving the public more oversight into BRIC activity.

But the agency — with the help of BPD — continues to operate with little oversight in its purchasing as well as its activities.

Under contract

A single line in BPD’s 2021 budget presentation to the City Council shows a contract for as much as $4.1 million to Burlington-based Centra Technology for “Intelligence Analysts.” The Dig filed a public records request for all contracts between BPD and Centra and, after months of being stonewalled, finally received two responses — one regarding eight workers covering the period between May 2016 and May 2018, and one about 11 workers covering the period spanning October 2018 to October 2021.

Meanwhile, the city’s own Open Checkbook shows BPD has paid Centra outside those periods, with more than $1 million going to the company before 2016 and $867,000 to Centra since last October. BPD started using Centra for BRIC services in 2006 and pays the organization through Urban Areas Security Initiative funding passed through the Homeland Security Grant Program, according to BPD spokesman John Boyle. Boyle noted that despite Centra being acquired by Pacific Architects and Engineers in 2020 and then subsequently flipped to the Maryland-based contractor Amentum, BPD is still using the company and renewed its contract last year.

The agreement signed in 2016 has a maximum value of $2.5 million and the second a max value of $4.1 million. Services with such high price tags are normally put into a public bidding process, but BPD went a different route with Centra. In a 2016 letter to then-Mayor Marty Walsh, then-BPD Commissioner Bill Evans described how Centra was a listed vendor of IT services under a massive federal General Services Administration (GSA) contract, which itself had been publicly bid. Conveniently, Centra agreed to provide its intelligence analysts to BPD at those already-approved federal rates.

“This contract is in compliance with the provisions of Chapter 30B [state law regarding public bidding] because it involves a purchase from a vendor pursuant to a GSA supply schedule available to local governments for the same goods and services being purchased under this contract,” Evans wrote to Walsh. “As I consider the cost to be reasonable and because further public advertising would serve no useful purpose, I recommend the award of this contract.”

Boyle said BPD began subcontracting analysts from Centra through a state contract with the Computer Merchant in 2010, and the contract moved to the federal GSA program in 2013.

The second contract with Centra and its max value of $4.1 million was also approved on GSA rates, with no public bidding. The scope for this contract involved two parts, with one providing general analytic services similar to the first contract.

“Due to the dynamically changing nature of the region’s criminal and terrorism threat environment, and the need to sastisfy [sic] a wide range of analytic requirements across various public safety disciplines, the ability to employ personnel with a broad scope of capabilities and subject matter expertise is a necessity,” the contract’s scope reads, noting that all employees will “be interested in current events and news; possess a keen understanding of social media; Demonstrate a superior knowledged [sic] of emerging online technologies and information technology,” among other attributes.

The second part of the contract requires Centra to produce a “Baseline Threat Analysis” between their hire date of October 23, 2018 and December 31 of that year. “Deliver BPD leadership and operational components a current, integrated picture of criminal, public safety, and homeland security threats within the BRIC’s mission areas,” the scope reads.

Centra intelligence

Centra may be based out of Burlington, but the company had an international reach before it was acquired by PAE in 2020 and subsequently by the even-larger Amentum. At certain points, Centra has had more than 750 employees simultaneously working in intelligence, often on lucrative and controversial government contracts.

In 2017, ProPublica reported that the company had received in excess of $200 million in government contracts for clandestine work. And Vice reported in 2016 how the CIA paid Centra more than $40 million to redact information about the agency’s torture program as it was being investigated by the Senate.

What does Centra offer that is worth so much money? The 2018 contract calls for research analysts; a person in that position “collects and analyzes data on selected topics in a wide range of subjects, including engineering, computer science, decision support, computer security, information architecture and design, physical or social sciences, economics, geopolitics, business development, international affairs, contractual, financial and security disciplines,” and uses “database applications, internet search tools, and public and private information resources to analyze and define solutions associated with job tasks.”

Both contracts also call for IT systems specialists. Those positions maintain IT hardware and software and design databases, according to Centra’s job descriptions, with the higher-level role having more advanced skills: “experience with higher order languages and protocols, and with advanced operating environments such as the [Department of Defense-standard] Defense Information Infrastructure-Common Operating Environment. Individuals may be capable of translation and analysis of technical material from foreign languages and assessing complex operating environments.”

Boyle said the Centra relationship pays for people to handle, among other things, terrorist and extremist assignments.

“The contract provides a mechanism for utilizing the HSGP’s UASI funding to hire and retain experienced crime analysts, intelligence analysts, and information technology administrators; more often than not, these individuals have subject matter expertise, years of experience and skill sets required to perform the function of their responsibilities,” Boyle said in a statement.

The contract is “not intended or used to purchase surveillance technology,” Boyle said.

A spokesperson for Mayor Michelle Wu’s office said the mayor is working to comply with an ordinance passed in 2021 that requires City Council approval to buy new surveillance technology. The Boston Globe and WBUR have reported that BPD has bought drones and cell phone trackers using hidden funding, including money from asset seizures.

“Before the 2021 ordinance goes into effect later this month, the mayor is required to submit to the City Council for its review and approval a proposed Surveillance Use Policy for each Surveillance Technology used by a covered department/agency,” the city spokesperson wrote in a statement. “These Policies must specify the purpose of the technology; the authorized use; provisions around data collection, access, protection,and retention; public access of the data; provisions around information and data sharing; training protocols; other oversight mechanisms; legal authority that control the use of the data and the technology; and special considerations specific to minor children.”

But that ordinance doesn’t address larger concerns like information sharing between agencies, particularly when a federally-connected company like Centra is involved, Ahmad said, pointing to the surveillance of antiwar groups.

“It’s just so obvious at this point that information sharing has happened. Private agencies have a lot of access to info that people don’t expect,” Ahmad said. “Even elected officials probably don’t realize what BPD is contracting out, all the intelligence analysts where the whole point is collecting information and sharing that information.”

And while BRIC analysts may be sharing information about resident antiwar protesters, they apparently failed to acquire relevant intelligence on white supremacist groups coming into Boston. Idaho police charged 22 Patriot Front members with planning to riot at a local Pride rally there in June, but in Mass, on July 2, about 100 members took the T in from Malden to demonstrate in Boston — and officials said they were caught unaware.

“We did not have intelligence ahead of time and did not unfortunately know they were planning to come here and disrupt our festivities,” Wu told reporters in July. “There was not a specific bit of information that they were intending to incite violence.” Ahmad said she wasn’t surprised BRIC somehow missed Patriot Front’s plans.

“Fusion centers were established under the Islamophobic War on Terror, so one of BRIC’s initial priorities was targeting Muslims for just being Muslim, but they also administer the gang database of predominantly Black and brown people, and were obsessed with Occupy Boston,” the Muslim Justice League organizer said. “It’s parallel to the January 6 response — of course police respond differently to white supremacist violence, and it’s ludicrous to think that the agencies that have historically been racist and Islamophobic should now be our defense against white nationalism.”

Ahmad said Wu needs to be more aggressive, not just in gaining greater oversight of BPD but in working to wean agencies off of federal grants. That can be hard; the Department of Homeland Security oversees funding that can go to disaster relief and emergency management agencies, but Ahmad said grants specifically tied to fusion centers like BRIC should go — along with BRIC itself.

“It has to start with the mayor — she oversees BPD,” Ahmad said. “BPD has had so many scandals around this by themselves, we know we can’t trust them. We have to rein them in. That’s not even considering the fact that federal law enforcement is involved in this …

“There’s no real power over them and these contractors. It’s incredibly opaque.

“What power do we have over these folks? Boston is one of the only cities with a fusion center — we can get rid of it.”

This article is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.