Inside SEAHAWK: The Lowcountry operations center linked to social media monitoring
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - An operations center that was once called a “national model for port security” by Sen. Lindsey Graham has been linked to the monitoring of Lowcountry activists’ social media posts, raising questions over the facility’s evolution and oversight.
The SEAHAWK Charleston Interagency Operations Center, which is hidden in plain sight behind the gates of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center’s campus in North Charleston, is where the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office security threat analyst who sent a May email containing screenshots of social media posts is based.
Social Media Monitoring Uncovered
Live 5 Investigates obtained the email in question in September through a Freedom of Information request.
All of the posts that were included pertained to Jamal Sutherland, a man with mental illness who was tased, pepper sprayed, and subsequently died in January while in sheriff’s office custody. The email was sent to top sheriff’s office command staff one day before videos of Sutherland’s death were released.
After declining interviews and referring questions regarding the social media monitoring to SEAHAWK, Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano broke her silence at an Oct. 1 press conference, using the opportunity to call the original news story about social media monitoring an “irresponsible presentation of information,” adding that the email was a “snapshot of what was happening at that time publicly in our community.”
During the press conference, Live 5 Investigates asked Graziano to explain what sort of work her employee who is assigned to SEAHAWK does.
“I cannot,” the sheriff responded. “You’ll have to reach out to SEAHAWK and talk to them about what they do.”
SEAHAWK sits on federal land that is closed to the public. The center does not have its own website, director, internal affairs department, public information officer, or a sole supervising agency.
“I found out about SEAHAWK through this bombshell story on the news when I saw my own social media content featured in the story,” Gadsden said.
“Do we need Seahawk? Yes we do,” Gilliard said. “But we also want to know what … Seahawk does. Who created Seahawk?”
The Growing Role of SEAHAWK
“It was certainly a daunting mission that the good people of SEAHAWK took on,” Tanner Campbell, whose company helped with the facility’s formation, explained.
Initially, the facility was operated by the U.S. Department of Justice, but amid funding concerns, it was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security in 2009.
“Do we continue SEAHAWK? Do we expand it? In my view the answer is yes to both,” Graham said at an event when the transition occurred.
It was also around 2009 that the role of SEAHAWK appears to have begun evolving into matters beyond counterterrorism.
“We’re planning on tying in the state Fusion Center and SEAHAWK together and so that information sharing will grow exponentially,” Michael McAllister of the U.S. Coast Guard said at the time.
More than a decade later, how did SEAHAWK, a facility created for maritime security, become associated with activists being monitored on social media?
Live 5 Investigates got exclusive access inside SEAHAWK and spoke with team members from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the Coast Guard who work there, though they would not go on camera.
Representatives for SLED and the Coast Guard say that SEAHAWK is where local, state, and federal agencies collaborate and coordinate on everything from natural disasters and boating under the influence to bank robberies and the Cooper River Bridge Run.
SLED referred to SEAHAWK’s operating style as a “unified command,” meaning that no singular agency or individual oversees what occurs there and there are no official SEAHAWK standards of accountability.
Each agency involved in SEAHAWK is responsible for the pay and behavior of their employees who are assigned there, according to SLED and the Coast Guard. The work conducted by the sheriff’s office inside SEAHAWK is considered to be sheriff’s office business, not SEAHAWK business.
“Unfortunately, both the sheriff’s office and SEAHAWK have been less than transparent,” Gadsden said.
SLED officials at SEAHAWK say that they do not monitor social media, but that they could not speak for other agencies since each department with a presence at SEAHAWK is responsible for its own conduct.
In addition to the sheriff’s office, SLED, and the Coast Guard, agencies involved with SEAHAWK include the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the National Guard.
There are also rooms in the same building as SEAHAWK with North Charleston Police and Charleston Police signs on the door.
“After 9/11, our agency did provide two detectives and a boat operator to Project Seahawk for port security/intelligence but our involvement in the program ended when the funding was canceled some years ago,” Charleston Police Department Deputy Chief Dustin Thompson said on Monday, adding that CPD’s office for Harbor Patrol is currently based in SEAHAWK’s building.
“At CPD, we do employ crime analysts and they do attend meetings at the property, but we do not have any full time analysts assigned,” Thompson said, explaining that CPD’s analysts work out of the department’s headquarters. “Periodically we are asked to assign an analyst but currently we do not have the capacity to handle the request.”
Live 5 Investigates reached out to a number of other law enforcement agencies throughout the Lowcountry regarding what involvement they have with SEAHAWK, but could not find any with a formal memorandum of understanding with the center.
Captain James Brown of the Goose Creek Police Department says they “do receive and give information occasionally,” but have no officers assigned to SEAHAWK.
When asked about what sort of information is received from SEAHAWK, Brown brought up six subjects, including “gang information” and “facial identification” but referred clarification questions about the latter topic to SEAHAWK.
Lieutenant Chris Hirsch of the Summerville Police Department said that his department is on SEAHAWK’s email distribution list, but that it would be inappropriate for them to speak about what kind of emails SEAHAWK sends out.
Gilliard, whose social media posts regarding Sutherland were among those monitored, took a tour of SEAHAWK for the first time on Tuesday. He described his visit as a positive experience, adding that he wants to move forward with a focus on “building trust and a level of transparency” between SEAHAWK and citizens.
“They had some concerns. We had some concerns of course and we felt the concerns were addressed,” Gilliard said. “But the question begs, where do we go from here? We have to show that we’re working together [and] building bridges.”
Social Media Monitoring: Sheriff or SEAHAWK?
The sheriff’s office previously referred questions involving the social media monitoring of activists following Sutherland’s death to SEAHAWK, where the analyst who sent the email about monitoring is assigned, but staff from SLED and the Coast Guard at SEAHAWK referred questions back to the sheriff’s office.
“What I suspect is going on is that this is a game of pass the buck,” Gadsden said. “Post 9/11, we’ve seen governmental agencies … exercise a lot of overreach, and so it’s not uncommon for you to not get particulars or confirming details about leadership or who initiated what investigation.”
On Monday, Sheriff Graziano once again declined a request for an interview to explain her office’s involvement with SEAHAWK.
“I have nothing further to add beyond the comments I made at the press conference I held at the Sheriff’s Office on Oct. 1,” she said.
Rob Way contributed to this report.
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