Home » Joe Manchin Rents Office Space to Firm Powering FBI, Pentagon Biometric Surveillance Center

Joe Manchin Rents Office Space to Firm Powering FBI, Pentagon Biometric Surveillance Center

After killing Joe Biden’s audacious Build Back Better legislation in 2021 and emerging as a constant roadblock to Democrats’ sweeping climate agenda, Sen. Joe Manchin’s sprawling coal empire became the focus of intense scrutiny for its impact on the citizens and ecosystem of northern West Virginia. What went unnoticed at the time was another company the senator is quietly profiting off of, housed in the very same building where his coal company Enersystems is headquartered, with an even greater reach.

Manchin has said in recent weeks that he won’t rule out running to replace Biden in the 2024 presidential election. He maintains a cozy relationship with the moderate political nonprofit No Labels, which has raised tens of millions of dollars to run a third-party presidential ticket in 2024, and he himself has raised millions from special interest groups cheering on his intransigence. But while Manchin has long cultivated the image of a liberty-loving champion, his financial ties to a biometric surveillance company draw a sharp contrast.

For decades, Manchin has been the landlord of the lucrative biometric surveillance firm co-founded in 1991 by his then-23-year-old daughter Heather Bresch, along with her late husband Jack Kirby and Manchin’s brother-in-law, Manuel Llaneza.

According to Tygart Technology’s website, its mission focuses on “leveraging technology to support National Security.” Since at least 1999, the company has operated out of the Manchin Professional Building, where Manchin has collected tens of thousands of dollars in rent over the years, according to deed records, patent applications, and financial disclosures recording rent collection from the enterprise.

The firm received large contracts from the West Virginia state government in the years that Manchin served as secretary of state and then as governor. In more recent years, Tygart has secured tens of millions of dollars in federal contracts from law enforcement and defense agencies to supply biometric data collection services to intelligence operations in West Virginia and across the country.

Bresch has held no financial interests in the company since her divorce from Kirby in 1999, according to reporting from the Charleston Gazette, but she is still registered as an agent for the company, according to West Virginia Secretary of State records. Kirby died in 2019, but Tygart’s new president also has ties to the senator. John Waugaman served on Manchin’s transition team for governor, according to the company’s website, and has donated some $12,000 to Manchin in the past decade. Neither a spokesperson for Manchin nor Tygart Technology responded to The Intercept’s questions.

While the Pentagon and contractors like Tygart justify mass biometric surveillance in the name of national security, both civil liberties advocates and members of Congress have moved to head off what they view as excessive and dangerous data collection.

Federal lawmakers, led by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., have introduced legislation since 2021 to ban biometric surveillance by the federal government, citing civil liberties advocates’ concerns about racial bias in biometric technology and the mass collection of personal data. Manchin has not supported this year’s bill or its previous iterations.

“The year is 2023, but we are living through 1984,” Markey said during the bill’s reintroduction this year. “Between the risks of sliding into a surveillance state and the dangers of perpetuating discrimination, this technology creates more problems than solutions. Every American who values their right to privacy, stands against discrimination, and believes people are innocent until proven guilty should be concerned. Enacting a federal moratorium on this technology is critical to ensure our communities are protected from inappropriate surveillance.”

“For a senator to be attached to an industrial-scale biometrics operation used in a wide range of criminal justice contexts is unsettling.”

John Davisson, director of litigation and senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, said Manchin’s connection to the mass collection of biometric data — which he described as an “alarming activity” — is cause for concern. “Particularly when in the hands of law enforcement, mass biometric technology poses a heightened risk of civil liberties violations,” he told The Intercept. “For a senator to be attached to an industrial-scale biometrics operation used in a wide range of criminal justice contexts is unsettling.”

Tygart received its first contract from West Virginia in 2000, eventually billing the state for more than $6 million, including web service subcontracts worth tens of thousands of dollars. In 2006, the state auditor launched an investigation into the company as part of a larger audit request by then-Secretary of State Betty Ireland, embroiling Manchin, then governor, in a no-bid contract scandal for services rendered by Tygart Technology.

The audit ultimately found that Tygart’s accounting procedures were error-ridden, but the auditor nonetheless ruled that “on the surface, there seems to be no criminal intent.” The majority of contracts involving Tygart came in under $10,000, the threshold required under state law for a competitive bidding process. In the months following the audit, Manchin signed House Bill 4031, which raised the cap for no-bid contracts from $10,000 to $25,000.

By 2009, Tygart was picking up federal contracts. The company has raked in over $117 million in government contracts to provide technology and software products to a host of federal agencies, including the FBI, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, the General Services Administration, and the Department of Health and Human Services. The company’s federal contracts peaked in 2015, when it brought in $19.1 million. So far this year, Tygart has $4.8 million worth of business with federal agencies.

The firm’s Pentagon contracts include providing support for an Automated Biometric Information System, or ABIS, which stores and queries millions of peoples’ biometric files collected both domestically and abroad.

At the same time that Tygart was doing business with the Defense Department, Manchin was touting the Pentagon’s biometrics surveillance work and warning about looming budget cuts.

“I am a strong supporter of the work done at this facility,” Manchin said during a 2013 Armed Services Committee hearing, referring to a biometrics center in Clarksburg, West Virginia. “More than 6,000 terrorists have been captured or killed as a direct result of the real-time information provided by ABIS to [Special Operations Forces] working in harm’s way. However, the funding for this work will run out on April 4, 2013.”

Manchin went on to vote for the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 to raise limits on discretionary appropriations, which allowed for more funding for the Clarksburg facility.

At the same time that Tygart was doing business with the Defense Department, Manchin was touting the Pentagon’s biometrics surveillance work and warning about looming budget cuts.

Two years later, Manchin was cheering on investments in biometric surveillance in his home state. In 2015, he welcomed attendees to the Identification Intelligence Expo, which was held in West Virginia for the first time. Tygart was among the attendees, which also included representatives from multiple divisions of the FBI and major defense contractors like Northrop Grumman. That same year, the FBI opened a new biometric technology center on its Clarksburg campus, bringing the Defense Department and FBI’s biometric operations under one roof. “I think we all have to realize it’s a very troubled world we live in,” Manchin said during the ribbon cutting. ”We’re going to have to continue to stay ahead of the curve and be on the cutting edge of technology.”

According to a report from the Government Accountability Office, the joint FBI/Defense Department facility can screen an individual through both the military’s massive ABIS and the FBI’s sprawling fingerprint database, known as IAFIS. “The IAFIS database includes the fingerprint records of more than 51 million persons who have been arrested in the United States as well as information submitted by other agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and Interpol,” the report reads.

Tygart Technology supplies the hardware used to collect biometric data processed in Clarksburg through its MXSERVER and MatchBox technologies, a contract worth tens of millions of dollars. These facial recognition products are used to search photographic and video databases and monitor surveillance camera streams in real time.

The technology allows law enforcement officials to track a person’s movement, scan through social media to find people, and identify individuals “using smart phones — including the ability to quickly scan crowds for threats using a mobile device’s embedded video camera.”

That the Pentagon and the Defense Department are jointly using such technologies is a recipe for violating Americans’ civil liberties, said Davisson of EPIC. “Anytime you’ve got a center like this that’s combining these two operations of criminal enforcement and national security,” he said, “there’s a risk and almost a certainty that the center is going to be blurring lines and running afoul of limitations on what the FBI is allowed to do in a law enforcement context.”

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