Spotlight on Surveillance
Anti-terrorism Funds Wrongly Spent on Highway Safety Programs
The federal government is spending an increasing amount of taxpayer money on surveillance technology and projects at the expense of other government programs. EPIC’s “Spotlight on Surveillance” scrutinizes these surveillance projects. For more information, see previous Spotlights on Surveillance.
This month, we Spotlight the Highway Watch program, a cooperative agreement between the Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the American Trucking Association (ATA). About $40 million in federal funds have been spent on the program, and $4.8 million in funds have been requested for Fiscal Year 2007.1 The program aims to provide anti-terrorism training to "truck and bus drivers, school bus drivers, highway maintenance crews, bridge and tunnel toll collectors and others" so that they will be able to "recognize and report suspicious activity."2 However, the Highway Watch program began as, and continues to be, a safety awareness program. As such, it should not receive anti-terrorism grants from Homeland Security.
About 200,000 people have joined the Highway Watch
program, according to the American Trucking Association.
The ATA started Highway Watch in 1998 and received funding from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a division of the Department of Transportation.3 The program had cost about $1 million annually, according to ATA.4 But in 2004, TSA allocated $19.3 million to expand the program beyond the trucking industry. (Highway Watch received another $22 million from TSA last year.)
Highway Watch began as a program for truck drivers to assist emergency vehicles to find crash sites, the ATA said.5 The program's participants attend an hour-long training session that teaches them "what to look for when witnessing traffic accidents and other safety-related situations and how to make a proper emergency report … [and] provides anti-terrorism information, such as: a brief account of modern terrorist attacks from around the world, an outline explaining how terrorist acts are usually carried out, and tips on preventing terrorism."6
After completion of the one-hour seminar, the participants are given a program ID number and a secret toll-free number to call if they spot any suspicious activity.7 Hotline operators collect the data, notify local law enforcement of the call, and then send a report to the Highway Information Sharing and Analysis Center (Highway ISAC).8 There, a "nationwide team of well-trained and experienced transportation security professionals collectively detect, assess, report, process, analyze, and respond to incidents which might post a threat to national security," in cooperation with Homeland Security, intelligence, and law enforcement officials.9
In July 2005, the ATA joined with the National Association for Pupil Transportation, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, and the National School Transportation Association to create School Bus Watch, which basically extends Highway Watch to school bus drivers.10 "Participants … complete a short training program that raises their awareness about terrorism, shows them how terrorists operate, and teaches them to recognize unusual behavior. Training also covers safety topics such as reporting accidents, disabled vehicles, and other road hazards."11 Trained school bus drivers can report "unusual" activity to the Highway Watch hotline.12
To date, Highway Watch has 200,000 participants, according to ATA.13 There are about 350 calls the hotline per month, about road hazards, accidents, and suspicious activity.14 However, there have not been any publicly reported instances of Highway Watch tips helping to prevent any terrorist plots.
In May 2004, the ATA claimed that a Highway Watch tip led to the capture of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, two gunmen who killed 10 people and injured three others in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area in October 2002.15 However, the reward for providing the information that led to the snipers' capture was split between two men who were not a part of Highway Watch.16 One man in Washington state provided information that identified Malvo.17 A second man called 911 when he saw a car at a rest stop in Frederick County, Md., that matched the description of one sought by authorities.18 Police descended upon the car and captured the snipers.19 A Kentucky truck driver also spotted the car at the rest stop and called the police, not the Highway Watch hotline.20
Highway Watch, which began as a safety awareness program, has continued to serve in that function. Many calls to the hotline concern automobile accidents and road hazards, even though participants are told to direct such calls to local police. Though highway safety is important, such a transportation project should not be called an anti-terrorism program, and should not receive federal anti-terrorism funds.
1 Pam Zubeck, Program trains truckers to watch for signs of terror, Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, Nov. 16, 2005.
2 Press Release, Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration, TSA Teams Up With The American Trucking Associations To Prevent And Respond to Terrorists (Mar. 23, 2004).
3 Matthew Walter, U.S. tutors truckers as sentries for terror, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Apr. 4, 2004.
5 Thomas Caywood, Trucker's eyes are on the road – and you, Boston Herald, Jul. 9, 2004.
14 Pam Zubeck, Program trains truckers to watch for signs of terror, supra note 1.
15 Jay Hughes, Truckers helping prevent terrorism on the highways, Associated Press, May 28, 2004.
16 Staff writer, Two split reward in D.C.-area sniper case, CNN, May 6, 2004.
20 Matthew Mosk, Sniper Fund Donations Unsent, Audit Finds, Wash. Post, Feb. 5, 2004 at B1.