Drug War Chronicle reported in June on the "traffic enforcement and sobriety checkpoints" set up to snare attendees at the Wakarusa Music Festival outside Lawrence, Kansas. Little did we or anybody know that was the least of what law enforcement was up to. Now it turns out that state and local law enforcement officials teamed up with a California-based high-tech security and surveillance company to put the festival and its 50,000 attendees under constant, high-resolution video surveillance.
In what was in essence a state-sponsored marketing ploy by NS Microwave, Inc., the manufacturer of the technology, members of the FBI, the DEA, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the Lawrence Police Department and the Douglas County Sheriff's Office all showed up at the festival to watch the $250,000 system zoom in on drug purchases, people rolling joints, and similarly intimate activities. (NS Microwave, a subsidiary of the defense contractor Allied Defense Group, bragged about this coup in an aggressively unhip press release that undoubtedly spilled the beans.)
The set-up included hidden wireless cameras, night vision equipment, and a 21-foot command trailer set up in the middle of the festival and disguised as a radio station trailer. According to a laudatory article in the trade publication Government Security News, "When law enforcement officials viewed the surveillance monitors in the command trailer, they were surprised to discover that the NS Microwave system was showing details never expected. On viewing screens, the equipment displayed a dramatic array of illegal activities, including extensive drug dealing, use of vehicles to store dealers' narcotics and dealer-to-mule transactions."
"It was a big surprise," Lt. Doug Woods, patrol commander for the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, told the News. "We got very good results."
According to police and press reports, some 140 drug-related arrests were made. But it is unclear how many came as a result of the hidden surveillance. According to Woods, 15 officers patrolled during the day shift and 20 at night, with 50 on hand for the festival's Saturday night climax.
Kansas law enforcement never told anyone about the secret high-tech surveillance, and the spying would have gone unnoticed without the publication of the NS press release and the Government Surveillance News puff piece, but after that came out, the Lawrence Journal-World broke the story locally, and adverse reaction began rolling in. The Journal-World quoted festival-goers as saying the hidden cameras were "a shame and kind of embarrassing." Attendee Ali Mangan told the local paper, "I feel like it was really a big mistake because people at a festival are trying to have a good time and let loose. I would be willing to bet that most people wouldn't be okay with that had they known."
By this week, the University of Kansas newspaper the Daily Kansan was denouncing the spying on its editorial page. In an editorial bluntly titled "Secret Cameras Violated Privacy," the newspaper lambasted local and state law enforcement: "Economic gain trumped privacy at the festival. If law enforcement had posted signs stating the presence of video surveillance, drug dealing might have decreased from the outset," the paper noted. "Instead, the suspected drug money seized and the fines collected will be added to the coffers of the city, which still hasn't said what it will do with the money.
"What's most disturbing," the editorial continued, "is that law enforcement probably never would have revealed its secretive moneymaking scheme had the GSN article not surfaced. Has local law enforcement secretly installed cameras in other public places? Maybe we won't know until another article is published in an obscure trade journal."
On Tuesday, Wakarusa festival organizer Brent Mosiman weighed in on the Wakarusa web site with an apology to attendees and critique of law enforcement. "We cannot tell you how truly sorry we are that these [spying] issues occurred at Wakarusa this year and we sincerely apologize to everyone for any violations of your rights and privacy. To give you some background, we were informed that there would be an increased law enforcement presence at this year's event. Initially, we were supportive of this when it was presented as an effort to increase the safety of everyone in attendance. It became apparent however that enforcement, not safety and security, was the true mission of the increased law enforcement. We must make it perfectly clear that we did not know of any of the specific measures, tactics or instruments the various law enforcement agencies used at the event. More importantly, Wakarusa does not believe such tactics and equipment were necessary and does not support their use. If there are not significant assurances that similar procedures won't materialize in the future, we will not host another Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival," Mosiman wrote.