Spying has sometimes been described as the realm of smoke and mirrors, but the expression might equally be applied to politics in Washington. President Obama appeared to be aligning himself with the critics of the growing militarization of police forces in the United States when he spoke in Camden, New Jersey on May 18. He declared that his administration would henceforth limit the types of surplus military equipment given to police departments as part of a program referred to as “1033.” The program, which has transferred material worth $18 billion, takes its name from and is funded through section 1033 of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act.   

Equipping the police with military weapons began even earlier, however, with the 1990 defense spending bill, when a surge in the activity of violent drug gangs left the police outgunned and lacking the resources to purchase items like body armor, night-vision goggles, and automatic weapons to match those used by their adversaries. The program inevitably grew post-9/11 and was justified as an appropriate anti-terrorist measure under the aegis of the Defense and Homeland Security Departments. To respond to the new security environment, the transfers began to incorporate heavier equipment, including armored vehicles.

The heavily armed police on display during the recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri prompted Obama to establish in January a working group—headed by the attorney general and secretary of defense—seeking to find a middle ground between legitimate police needs and the widespread perception that law enforcement has become an occupying army. It focused on procurement, training, inventory control, and potential civil-rights violations. The group’s 50-page report, “Recommendations Pursuant to Executive Order 13688 Federal Support for Local Law Enforcement Equipment Acquisition,” was released to coincide with Obama’s Camden visit. The White House declared that it had taken major steps to demilitarize the police, and the media largely endorsed that narrative.

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Certain weapons systems and peripherals have been placed on a list of prohibited items, including tracked armored vehicles, firearms and ammunition of .50 caliber or higher, grenade launchers, military-specification equipped and armed vehicles, bayonets, and camouflage uniforms. As police forces, with very rare exceptions, do not have any of the equipment that is now banned, the list is basically irrelevant. The curious inclusion of camouflage uniforms was intended to distinguish policemen from soldiers.

The group also recommended that access to other weapons be more strictly controlled. Airplanes, helicopters, armored vehicles on wheels, drones, riot gear, battering rams, special-purpose firearms, and command vehicles are all acceptable as long as the police department fills out the forms required to validate the transfer and makes sure its personnel are properly trained to handle the equipment. Any police force can acquire the surplus gear, with the sole exception of those providing security for public school systems.

So the widely ballyhooed first step in the demilitarization of police follows the pattern of misdirection that has become characteristic of the Obama administration. Equipment that no one uses or even desires has been banned, while everything else is still available, as long as one is willing to do the required paperwork and endure the approval process.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.