In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the federal government stepped up to assure the nation that as horrifically damaging as the storm was, we would all come out of it OK.*

*Offer does not apply to affected residents of New Orleans.

President Bush let us know that FEMA head “Brownie” (born Michael D. Brown) was doing a “heckuva job” botching the government’s response. The New Orleans Police Department worked hard to secure critical infrastructure, going so far as to show up in civilian clothes, armed with unapproved weapons. And the FBI, which sent its people to assist in search and rescue operations and to help curtail post-storm looting, made sure an unprecedented tragedy wouldn’t go to waste.

MuckRock’s Shawn Musgrave points out that, hidden among the 5,000 heavily redacted pages it received in April in “response” to its FBI-Stingray query, the agency’s Katrina experience somehow made Stingray acquisition a priority.

A year later, as part of post-Katrina review, the FBI’s WITT requested funding for additional equipment from Harris Corporation, which manufactures the StingRay line of cell phone trackers. Two drafts of the same memo (draft 1) and (draft 2) from July 2006, each with competing redactions, together weave a partial glimpse of WITT’s justification.

[…]

“In the summer of 2005, the U.S. Gulf Coast bore the brunt of several hurricanes, including Hurricane Katrina which severely degraded the capabilities of the [redacted],” the memo reads in part. Subsequent, heavily redacted sentences suggest that the storm crippled the FBI’s capacity to conduct certain types of cell phone tracking operations via equipment on-hand at the time of landfall.

Further details are redacted, but it’s clear the diminished capabilities pushed IMSI catchers to the front of the acquisition queue. The accompanying purchase order was designated “priority.” Previous purchases had only been declared “routine.”

The redactions make it impossible to determine why exactly the agency felt the acquisition of more cellphone-tracking technology was a must post-Katrina. Perhaps the agency needed hardware upgrades to existing equipment that functioned in a less-than-ideal manner when local cell infrastructure suffered damage. Maybe it lent some devices to the New Orleans PD and was having trouble getting them back. Maybe it just wanted more IMSI catchers. No matter the stated reason, it can safely be assumed that post-act of God requisition processes receive less scrutiny than those made during times of relative peace and safety. Terrorism and drug dealing may have been off the table in terms of justifications, but any good government agency knows “national disaster” is spelled “O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-T-Y.” The FBI is no exception.


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