Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Police intelligence units stage comeback

In conjunction with yesterday's report that Bush is simply ignoring laws he doesn't like, this all starts to sound like variations on a theme. From U.S. News & World Report:

Since 9/11, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have poured over a half-billion dollars into building up local and state police intelligence operations. The funding has helped create more than 100 police intelligence units reaching into nearly every state.

To qualify for federal homeland security grants, states were told to assemble lists of "potential threat elements"--individuals or groups suspected of possible terrorist activity. In response, state authorities have come up with thousands of loosely defined targets, ranging from genuine terrorists to biker gangs and environmentalists.

Guidelines for protecting privacy and civil liberties have lagged far behind the federal money. After four years of doling out homeland security grants to police departments, federal officials released guidelines for the conduct of local intelligence operations only last year; the standards are voluntary and are being implemented slowly.

I'm okay with the police being on the lookout for terror suspects. But basic standards of evidence and conduct need to be followed, or any such system is guaranteed to be abused.

U.S. News has a sidebar on why pervasive police surveillance is troublesome.

Starting in the 1970s, lawsuits and grand jury investigations uncovered all kinds of abuse by these units: illegal spying, burglaries, beatings, unwarranted raids, the spreading of disinformation. Americans engaged in constitutionally protected free speech were routinely photographed, wiretapped, and harassed--all in the name of national security. In Memphis, the police department spied on the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and gathered data on political activists' bank accounts, phone records, and close associates. In New Haven, Conn., police wiretapped over a thousand people. In Philadelphia, then police chief Frank Rizzo boasted of holding files on 18,000 people. The list of "subversives" grew to include the League of Woman Voters, civil rights groups, religious figures, and politicians running for office.

If you want even more history and examples of how police powers can be abused, I heartily recommend Geoffrey Stone's book "Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime." It traces the history of free speech law from the founding of the Republic.

The FBI did all sorts of heinous things under its COINTELPRO initiative, including arranging for antiwar activists to be fired, sabotaging the campaigns of antiwar candidates, mailing anonymous letters to their spouses suggesting the activists were having affairs, causing activists to be evicted, disabling their cars, intercepting their mail, planting derogatory information about them in the press.... the list goes on.

Then there's the blurry line between infiltration and agitation:

1. A state undercover agent served as co-chair of the Students for a Democratic Society chapter in Columbia, S.C.

2. Another became chairman of the SDS chapter at the University of Texas.

3. Agents infiltrating the SDS chapter at Northwestern led a sit-in in 1968 and then actively participated in a 1969 Weatherman action.

4. Other Chicago undercover operatives provided explosives to the Weathermen, encouraged them to shoot the police, and led an assault upon a uniformed police sergeant during a demonstration, which was widely publicized as "proving the violence" of the New Left.

Supporters of this resurgence in police activity say that the police have learned the lessons of history and will be more careful this time. I'm not reassured, especially given the examples in the U.S. News story.

In February 2006 near Washington, D.C., two Montgomery County, Md., homeland security agents walked into a suburban Bethesda library and forcefully warned patrons that viewing Internet pornography was illegal. (It is not.)... Similarly, in 2004, two plainclothes Contra Costa County sheriff's deputies monitored a protest by striking Safeway workers in nearby San Francisco, identifying themselves to union leaders as homeland security agents.

Union leaders and Web surfers. Well, I suppose they could cause trouble. But how about this one, from here in Minnesota?
In Minnesota, the state-run Multiple Jurisdiction Network Organization ran into controversy after linking together nearly 200 law enforcement agencies and over 8 million records. State Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, a Republican who oversees privacy issues, found much to be alarmed about when a local hacker contacted her after breaking into the system. The hacker had yanked out files on Holberg herself, showing she was classified as a "suspect" based on a neighbor's old complaint about where she parked her car.

Scary on two counts: the absurdness of the classification system and the insecurity of the data.

Or how about the lead example in the story:

[In Atlanta], two agents were assigned to follow around the county executive. Their job: to determine whether he was being tailed--not by al Qaeda but by a district attorney investigator looking into alleged misspending. A year later, one of its plainclothes agents was seen photographing a handful of vegan activists handing out antimeat leaflets in front of a HoneyBaked Ham store. Police arrested two of the vegans and demanded that they turn over notes, on which they'd written the license-plate number of an undercover car,

DAs and vegan protesters. Not good.

The fight against Al Qaeda is morphing into an intimidation campaign against the same old "troublemakers". We've been down this road before; it will be shameful if we go down it again.

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Anonymous maxtrue said...

Here is something to consider Is Big Brother is listening? Makes you wonder. Kudos to Stephen Colbert. Amazing satire delivered to both the press and the President.....

5/02/2006 6:45 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

That was pretty funny, and sadly close to the possible truth. Although I'm less worried about the pizza guy knowing all that stuff than I am about the government.

There are all sorts of private, legal things that people rightly don't want anyone else to know about. And our government has shown over and over that it cannot be trusted to do the right thing when given the power to monitor whomever it wants.

Technology is making it easier to spy, and thus privacy is morphing from a near-given (because surveillance required so much time and effort) to an endangered concept that requires strong legal protection.

5/02/2006 10:40 PM  
Blogger Matt Parker said...

Hear, Hear!

The fundemental right to privacy is the keystone to a free society.

When the government can spy on you for your beliefs, the next logical step is to control the speech and actions they don't approve of.

Think about how the world would have played differently if Nixon had had this technology...


5/03/2006 7:46 AM  

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