"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Roy “Mac” Sikes wasn’t wearing a white 10-gallon like the other top Texas Rangers attending the 2010 Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition meeting in El Paso. Mac, as the Texas Rangers and sheriffs call him, was going hatless. But that may have been because it’s not entirely clear which hat Mac should have been wearing – ranger, cop or consultant?
Since 2006 many of the key figures in state-led border security operations and information campaigns have identified themselves as DPS employees or part of the Texas Rangers to the public, policy community and the media, disguising their true identities.
The business card he handed me during the sheriffs meeting identified Sikes as the director of the Border Security Operations Center (BSOC) – which is a type of fusion center for border-security operations in Texas. It’s a project of the Texas Rangers Division, which in turn is a branch of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS).
However, Mac Sikes is neither a Texas Ranger nor a DPS employee. Like most of the other key figures behind the Lone Star State’s border security campaign, Sikes is a contract employee.
A “senior operational analyst” at Abrams Learning & Information Systems (ALIS), Sikes became director of BSOC as part of the firm’s $3-5 million annual contracts with DPS since 2006. The recent DPS decision — in response to a public records request — to release the ALIS contract revealed the true identity of Sikes.
The Border Security Operations Center is the nexus of the Texas’ own border security initiatives, collectively known as Operation Border Star. ALIS, a homeland-security consulting firm with offices in Arlington, Virginia, was founded in 2004 by Ret. Army Gen. John Abrams to cash in on the billions of dollars in new government contracting funds that started to flow after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.
Since 2006 ALIS functioned as the hidden force behind virtually all non-federal border-security operations in Texas. Whether it’s strategy formulation, border crime-mapping, operations management or public relations, ALIS and its team of consultants have been closely involved in creating what Governor Rick Perry calls the “Texas model of border security.”
ALIS, which has received $22.7 million from DPS and the Governor’s Office for border-security operations in FY 2007-FY 2011, describes its mission in Texas as follows:
ALIS was commissioned to improve border security strategy and operations along the U.S. – Mexico border through the development of an epicenter for security operations. The objective of the operational center is to plan, coordinate, implement, and evaluate interagency border security operations to counter the threat of organized crime, terrorism, and the flow of contraband and human trafficking to foster a secure border region.
Gov. Rick Perry has boasted to both President Obama and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano that Texas has created a new model for border security. In a letter to the president, Perry hailed his state’s “proven and successful multi-agency border security strategy,” while the governor invited Napolitano to visit the Texas border to see the “Texas model of border security.” DPS Director Steven McCraw, who was appointed by Perry and also served as the governor’s homeland security director from 2003 to early 2012, says that Texas is creating its own “paradigm” of border security.
Perry and McCraw support an aggressive, militarized border security strategy. They claim that Operation Border Star – their name for the Texas model or paradigm – is succeeding in securing the Texas border whereas the Obama administration’s border-security operations are, they charge, a manifest failure.
That’s a claim that was highlighted in a September 2011 report on border security commissioned by the Texas Department of Agriculture. The report, “Texas Border Security: A Strategic Military Assessment,” was written by Gen. Robert Scales (ret.) and Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who have their own Washington Beltway consulting firms, Colgen and BR McCaffrey Associates.
In their highly alarmist and unabashedly militaristic report, the retired generals describe the border as a “war zone” and contend that purported success of Operation Border Star and the Texas Rangers “should serve as a template for the future” of border security operations nationwide. Such a model, they argued, should be “based on proven joint military operations” and the type of “layered ‘defense-in-depth’” strategies employed by the Rangers and Operation Border Star.
But the generals failed to offer any evidence, other than anecdotal testimonies collected by Texas Commission of Agriculture Todd Staples to document the achievements of the Texas model. That’s not surprising, given that after nearly seven years Perry and McCraw have also failed to offer any substantial documentation to back their claims about the success of the Texas model of border security.
The “made-in-Texas” boasts about the state’s model of border security and the “can-do” braggadocio about “Texans protecting Texans” don’t stand up to close scrutiny.
Border Star operations and programs are funded by a combination of DHS grants, Justice Department criminal-justice assistance and economic-stimulus funding, and Texas general revenues.
The first funding for Operation Border Star came from the Obama administration’s border-security programs to aid local and state law enforcement. Although the state legislature, starting in 2007, started appropriating about $100 million annually for BSOC and other Border Star operations, federal funding has been the main stay of the Texas model. It’s also an operation that has been almost wholly outsourced to Washington Beltway consultants.
Outsourcing Texas Border Security
The Public Safety Commission has repeatedly approved DPS contracts with ALIS without any public discussion and without any evaluation. The commission, whose director is a major donor to Perry’s election campaigns, have allowed Perry and McCraw to run Operation Border Star without any oversight or review. ALIS contracts – including emergency contracts – have been routinely approved without any evaluation of its cost and impact.
With no discussion, the Texas Public Safety Commission at its Aug. 12, 2010 meeting in Austin approved an “emergency contract for providing strategies and plans to support the management of the Texas Border Security Operations Center (Abrams Learning & Information Systems).”
The commission also extended another DPS outsourcing contract held by APPRISS for another information and technology-driven project called the Texas Data Exchange (TDEx). DPS has paid APPRISS $30.9 million in FYs 2008-2012 for information systems of dubious worth.
Meanwhile, DPS in 2010-2011 repeatedly rejected requests by the Center for International Policy for the various strategy statements, operations plans, and performance reports that ALIS was contracted to produce, arguing that the information was “law enforcement sensitive.” DPS has contended that the release of the classified documents to a nonprofit education organization would place law enforcement officials at risk.
However, these same documents that were denied CIP were apparently accessed by the for-profit security consultants contracted by Texas Ag Commissioner Staples.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has upheld the DPS rejection of the public records requests for documents that would shed light on the structure, operations, and achievements of Operation Border Star and the role of ALIS. The only documents that DPS did release to the Center for International Policy were the ALIS contracts themselves.
The DPS contract with ALIS, which was signed Aug. 31, 2010, delegated not only the inner-workings of Operation Border Star to the Beltway contractor but also gave the contractor the responsibility for formulating border-security and homeland-security strategy statements, running public-relations operations, and directing law-enforcement operations.
Questions about the value of Operation Border Star and about its political character have been repeatedly raised over the past few years by several Texas media outlets and by the Texas American Civil Liberties Union. Texas border communities that have been adversely affected by the redirection of state and local law-enforcement agencies into border-security campaigns and away from public-safety missions have also criticized the cost and focus of the Perry administration’s border-security programs.
Gross Mismanagement in Texas of Federal Homeland and Border Security Funds
The Texas State Auditor recently raised new questions and concerns about the unprofessional DPS management of federal funds and about the agency’s dubious contracting practices under the stewardship of Steven McCraw.
The independent report, which was commissioned by the state auditor and released in February 2012, found, among other violations, cases of stunning material weaknesses in DPS accounting, a pattern of noncompliance in following federal procedures, and an array of alarming deficiencies in reporting and monitoring federal funds.
The report highlights a pervasive and systemic mismanagement of federal funds by DPS, including eight duplicate payments to contractors, sloppy accounting, failure to open contracts to competitive bidding (while in at least one other case bypassing low bidder for a preferred one), routine reliance on emergency contracts to avoid contract renewal and bidding processes, and a persistent failure to communicate accounting and reporting guidelines to subrecipients of more than federal funds managed by DPS. (In 2010 DPS administered $397 million in federal revenues for subgrants and contracts.)
The audit reviewed a representative selection of cases among the $265.9 million in federal grants and subgrants to DPS — in the areas of homeland security, border security, emergency management and law enforcement interoperability.
Among the findings of negligence and incompetence were these startling instances:
Texas officials, including the governor, DPS chief, attorney general and agriculture commissioner, frequently charge that the federal government has failed in its responsibility to control the Texas-Mexico border.
It is rarely acknowledged, however, by these same critics how dependent Texas law enforcement and criminal justice agencies – including state’s homeland security department, DPS, governor’s criminal justice division, border sheriffs, agriculture department and state prosecutors and courts – are on the continuing flow of federal funds into Texas.
In fiscal year 2011 Texas received $57.5 billion in federal funding. That same year DPS relied on federal funding for approximately half its annual budget — down from the 60% funding in 2010 when federal stimulus funds were still flowing. The audit did not include the names of the private and local government recipients of DPS contracting and subgranting funds that were reviewed in the audit.
However, DHS and DOJ funding for homeland security, border security, and law enforcement interoperability have all been used to prop up the Texas model of border security – and to pay for the outsourcing of the building of the model and its implementation. It’s likely that the DPS contracts with ALIS, being one of the top-ranking DPS contractors, came under the scrutiny of the auditor.
The audit, which occurred during 2010, underscored problems with the type of DPS emergency contracting that benefited ALIS. The audit and its alarming findings have contributed to mounting cynicism and criticism about the Texas border security model and its outsourcing.
The audit raises fresh questions about McCraw’s ability to manage the large state agency. The shocking findings of DPS management of DHS and DOJ funding to support Texas homeland and border security programs also underscores rising skepticism about the “go-it-alone” and “can-do” boasting of the Texas border hawks critical of the Obama administration.
Outsourcing Strategy and Propaganda
It would be hard to exaggerate the degree to which Governor Perry and DPS Chief McCraw have outsourced state border-security, homeland-security and public-safety programs to Washington Beltway contractors.
ALIS, according to the August 2010 “emergency contract,” was, among other things, hired to do everything from formulating strategy to running operations to managing public relations – not only for Operation Border Start but also for the Texas Rangers and DPS itself.
The “emergency” contract for $1.5 million ALIS services, which was signed by McCraw and ALIS Chief Operating Officer on August 31, 2010, underscored the central role of ALIS in shaping and directing border security operations in Texas.
Echoing the expansive scope of the language used in earlier contracts, DPS once again hired ALIS to:
Develop and refine border-wide security strategies and plans for seamless integration of interagency law enforcement border security operations in the State of Texas.
With a staff of at least 17 analysts and information specialists — many with military backgrounds –ALIS was contracted to provide the vision and the structural foundation for Operation Border Star. Initially, Border Star had been little more a commitment by the Perry administration to support the newly formed Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition and its Operation Linebacker, using federal criminal-justice funds controlled by the governor’s office, along with an occasional show of force by DPS police in Texas border counties.
Over the years, with each successive contract, the extent of responsibility outsourced to ALIS expanded dramatically. One of the first contracts gave ALIS the task of developing a computerized crime-mapping system for the greater Texas border region, which is known as TexMap. By late 2010, however, DPS was paying ALIS to, among other things:
The Aug. 31, 2010 emergency contract with ALIS built on earlier contracts, which steadily reinforced the centrality of the homeland security contractor not only to execute assigned tasks but also to formulate strategy and direct operations. An earlier contract had empowered ALIS to formulate the drafts of the Texas Border Security Campaign Plan, the governor’s 2010-2015 Homeland Security Strategy Plan, and the DPS Agency Strategy Plan 2010. That’s worth repeating. This little-known, upstart consulting agency from the Washington Beltway had been hired by the state’s public safety and homeland security director to: write the campaign plan for the governor’s border security campaign, conceptualize and write the state’s strategy statement for homeland security, and produce the strategy plan for DPS itself.
One of the most striking and disturbing components of the August 2010 contract was the new public relations and outreach role given ALIS contractors. According to the contract, ALIS would assume a new role that would combine public relations, communications and policy-advocacy functions.
Instead of merely being a hired gun contracted for predetermined border-security operations in Texas, ALIS contractors were expected to develop strategies, gather information to support these strategies, and then work to shape public opinion and public policy about border security threats and responses. The only border experience that ALIS brought to the table when it was hired was that its founder General Abrams had in the late 1980s commanded a regiment that was responsible for protecting the German “inner-border” prior to German reunification.
Specific tasks outsourced to ALIS included producing “reports, briefings, studies and recommendations” for “Texas leadership.” ALIS was also tasked to “orient senior government leaders on border security issues,” with possible options including “public affairs strategy and plans, fact sheets, talking points, speeches, presentations and testimony.”
The stipulated goal of the “Border Security media/public information outreach strategy” was, according to the DPS contract, to “build support for border security” among the public, media and policy community in Texas. As noted in the contract, ALIS would at times also be expected to leverage its BSOC fusion center staff “to surge for 24/7 information operations.”
Rather than gathering intelligence and analyzing information, DPS tasked ALIS to provide DPS and the Texas Rangers with “the necessary information to assist the ongoing operations.” Its BSOC staff were expected to “discipline the information operations process by serving the state information operations ‘net control’ station for border security.”
The BSOC and the JOICs would be tasked, according to the contract, to “provide needed information products as required by Texas Rangers” and to produce “effective information products.”
In review, in the interests of border security and homeland security, ALIS was contracted by DPS – with the approval of the Public Safety Commission and the governor – to manufacture “information products.” What is more, DPS wanted ALIS to ensure that the information was “effective” as well as “necessary” for ongoing operations. There has been absolutely no review by policy makers or by the public of DPS outsourcing of border-security strategy and operations.
It’s likely, though, that if there were ever such transparency and accountability, at least a few policymakers and concerned citizens would caution that structuring information as an instrument may replicate the information- and psychological-ops of the military and intelligence agencies but may not be an appropriate way to consider information gathering and dissemination on the home front. The term propaganda might arise in any public review this type of outsourcing.
Similarly, the concept that a private contractor should participate in information surges that would parallel operational surges by law enforcement officers and state troops might also have sparked discussion about the proper use of state and federal funds.
As is, it seems that the directors of Operation Border Star – Governor Perry and DPS Director McCraw – view information and intelligence as fungible commodities that can be created, manipulated and shaped to serve the greater good of the nation and Texas border security.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
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