Dept. of Homeland Security Tells Companies to Spy on Their Customers

Thirteen years to the day after the tragic 9/11 attacks, authorities continue to project suspicions on law-abiding citizens who have not been accused of crimes, rather than known terrorists. According to The Washington Times, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said that DHS will be issuing new instructions to retailers this week that encourage them to spy on their customers’ transactions in an effort to catch individuals who might be planning a terrorist attack. Johnson characterized the effort as a continuation of the controversial “if you see something, say something” campaign that pushes citizens to snoop on one another.

Secretary Johnson specified that retailers should be trained on how to identify a “long list” of products that could be used to make a bomb. However, he has yet to clarify how retail employees, who are rarely trained in advanced chemistry, would be able to spot bomb-making materials in a check-out line. If the plan were to count on companies to analyze their sales records to find individuals who bought combinations of explosive precursors, costly point-of-sale software upgrades would have to be made, and that strategy would only catch potential terrorists that identify themselves during the transaction by, for example, paying for items using a credit card in their own name, rather than cash.

During a question-and-answer session that followed a speech by Secretary Johnson at Wednesday’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, reporter Lucy Komisar asked, “Taking up what you said about concern about homegrown terrorism… How do you deal with the fact that some budding terrorists can very easily go to some state where there are very few restrictions, none really enforced, get assault weapons, get handguns, walk around in the street with them, walk around even in an airport with them? Isn’t this a huge hole in your protection of people in this country when terrorists in this country can get lethal weapons right here and turn them on us?”

Secretary Johnson replied, “Without directly commenting on various gun control ideas out there… I am concerned, and, put handguns aside for a moment, put assault weapons aside for a moment, I am concerned about how easy it is for somebody to buy, in an open fashion, materials, explosives, precursors to explosives, pressure cookers that can be used to cause mass destruction, mass violence. We saw an example of that in Boston last year… We can’t and we shouldn’t prohibit the sale of a pressure cooker. We can sensitize retail businesses to be on guard for suspicious behavior by those who buy this kind of stuff, and, so one of the reasons I am concerned about domestic-based acts of mass violence is the ease with which somebody can assemble things that in and of themselves are not dangerous but you put them all together… and then you combine that with some of the learning on the internet that various groups put out… it combines for a serious concern and a serious homeland security concern, and so I… have decided that we need to make, as a large part of the homeland security mission, countering violent extremism at home.” Aside from the example of the pressure cooker, Johnson did not yet specify which products are considered explosive precursors. DHS will issue the new guidelines this week, which are expected to include tips on how to identify potential terrorists among retail customers.

Civil liberties advocates often worry that comments like these by authorities could drive citizens to a state of paranoia, leading fear-stricken people to report benign activities to law enforcement. As an example, an African-American man was recently fatally shot by police in a Walmart while holding a toy BB gun that he intended to purchase from the store after a panicked couple reported him to police in a way that led officers to believe that he was an active shooter about to begin a rampage.

Video of DHS Secretary Johnson’s entire speech at Wednesday’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting can be seen in the above-embedded video. The question-and-answer portion from which the above quote was taken begins at around the 38:05 mark.