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Amendment 10 Just Made Florida's Counterterrorism Office a Permanent Fixture

Florida already has a statewide office of counterterrorism. Despite this, an amendment was placed on the November 6 ballot asking voters if they favored the creation of an "office of domestic security and counterterrorism within [the] department of law enforcement."

Lats week, 63 percent of voters approved that amendment, which is better known for making the job of Miami-Dade sheriff an elected position. But Amendment 10's bundled language also means the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's counterterrorism unit will become a permanent fixture in the state's landscape.

Michael Adkinson, the sheriff of Walton County and past president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, which pushed Amendment 10, says the goal "was to make sure that [the office] was enshrined and protected so it doesn't become subject to changing public interest or political interest."

"Literally with the stroke of a pen, a governor could do away with the office of domestic security," Adkinson says. "You can't now. It's a constitutional mandate."

But the passage of Amendment 10 is potentially problematic for two reasons. First, critics contend that its bundled language was meant to trick voters. And others question whether Florida even needs its own anti-terrorism office.

Amendment 10 does four things: allows the legislative session to move to January in even-numbered years, enshrines the state's Department of Veterans Affairs in the constitution, preserves the FDLE's counterterrorism office, and ensures that every county's sheriff, tax collector, property appraiser, clerk of court, and supervisor of elections are elected to office.

Critics have argued that bundling veterans' affairs and counterterrorism into the amendment amounted to a game of "hide the ball" — a way to accomplish the ultimate goal of forcing counties to turn over control of top positions, including that of sheriff.

"In this case, the amendment mandates changes to county charters under a summary that talks about setting up county departments of veterans affairs — you’re not against veterans, are you? — and electing sheriffs — you’re not against elections, are you? — and creating offices of domestic security and counterterrorism within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — you’re not for the terrorists, are you?" wrote Daytona Beach News-Journal columnist Mark Lane. "It doesn’t so much hide the ball as crowd it out by plopping it in a big bucket full of other balls."

(Adkinson dismisses that theory: "From our polling and looking at it, the standalone question of electing your sheriff in Miami was overwhelmingly popular... The reality is the worst thing that happens is you get to vote, and that's a good thing.")

There's also the question of whether state counterterrorism offices are actually effective at thwarting attacks. In 2012, the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that state-run "fusion centers" working with the Department of Homeland Security often produced, as one branch chief put it, "a bunch of crap." The committee determined that the success stories touted by DHS often related to crimes that had nothing to do with terrorism.

"They do not fulfill the promise federal officials made to Congress and the public that the significant taxpayer support directed to fusion centers would aid in the fight against terror," the committee's report says.

Author Trevor Aaronson, a New Times alum who has written extensively about the way terrorism investigations are conducted, says the analysts who work in Florida's anti-terrorism Fusion Center often have minimal experience and aren't required to have significant military or intelligence training. Most of the job entails processing so-called "suspicious activity reports" passed along by local law enforcement agencies.

"They're meant to be this analytical department that looks at suspicious activity reports, and these reports can be really stupid, like a Muslim walking through a parking lot," Aaronson says. "The question is, how effective are these things at figuring out true terrorist activity?" (The ACLU has also criticized the reporting process for being racially biased and encroaching on activity protected by the First Amendment.)

As of now, Amendment 10 is not expected to change anything at the FDLE's anti-terrorism office, although lawmakers could potentially budget for more staff or funding in the next legislative session.

"This just puts it in the constitution," says FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger. "It’s our understanding it doesn’t change anything for us."

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