2:54pm

Thu August 29, 2013
Cops & Courts

East Bay Express: Oakland's surveillance contractor has a history of fraud

Last month, the Oakland City Council approved a controversial $2 million deal to continue construction on the Domain Awareness Center (DAC) — a surveillance hub for the Port of Oakland that has mushroomed into a citywide system. Civil libertarians and numerous Oakland residents oppose the DAC, especially its breadth, contending that it will infringe on people's privacy rights and could be used to target political protesters. But councilmembers claim that Oakland needs the system to reduce crime, and that it would be irresponsible not to take advantage of the federal funds that are paying for DAC. And now, at least one high-ranking city official is saying the DAC could be used to control political demonstrations. Citing more than thirty protests in recent years, Renee Domingo, Oakland's director of Emergency Services, wrote in an industry publication earlier this month that "Oakland's long history of civil discourse and protest adds to the need" for the surveillance center.

But Oakland's massive surveillance project is also controversial because the influential defense contractor selected to build it — Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) — has a long, troubling track record. In recent years, SAIC has been accused of defrauding municipal governments, bribing foreign officials, and delivering shoddy products. And when the company does deliver the goods at cost and on time, it's often for militarized projects linked to human rights abuses. Among SAIC's recent contracts: training the Egyptian military, operating drones used to kill foreign citizens, building and operating portions of the NSA's internet spying system used on Americans, and more.

It's unclear if Oakland's mayor, city council, or city administrator vetted the company before approving the DAC contract. Nothing in the Oakland Public Safety Committee meeting records, nor the meetings of the full council, indicate that the city looked into SAIC's record before handing over millions in federal grant dollars. In an interview last month, neither of the two city officials in charge of the DAC — Domingo and Ahsan Baig, the city's information technology manager — were aware of SAIC's past record of fraud, cost overruns, and failed projects.

Councilman Dan Kalb said he also wasn't aware of SAIC's record with other cities or its various military and Department of Homeland Security contracts. "The administration made the decision as to which contractor to go with," Kalb said, referring to City Administrator Deanna Santana's office. "Apparently, last year the council gave the administration the authority to work with the port to decide on the contractor." Other members of the council did not respond to a request for comment.

SAIC is one of the titans of the military and intelligence industries, dubbed "Washington's $8 Billion Shadow" by Vanity Fair investigative reporters Don Bartlett and James Steele (the company has a $5.3 billion market capitalization today). Founded in 1969 by John Robert Beyster — the former head of the particle accelerator physics department of General Atomics, another major weapons manufacturing company — SAIC was based in San Diego until 2007. The company moved its headquarters to Reston, Virginia during the George W. Bush administration to be closer to its two biggest clients: the Pentagon and the rapidly growing Department of Homeland Security. SAIC has received $36 billion in federal contracts since 2001, with $23 billion, or 63 percent of this total, coming from the US military.

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