Police Spying 101

A federal court ruling just made police surveillance of political activists even easier

| Web Specials Archives

Activists are alarmed by a recent federal court ruling which eases restrictions against political surveillance by law enforcement agencies.

The ruling was issued on January 11, 2001 by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. It relaxed restrictions intended to prevent the Chicago Police Department from spying on law-abiding political dissidents. The restrictions were included in a 1981 consent decree stemming from a 1974 lawsuit by the Alliance to End Repression. The suit charged that the FBI's Chicago office and the Chicago police routinely violated First Amendment rights when investigating dissidents. The suit particularly targeted the police department Intelligence Division, dubbed the 'Red Squad' because of its infiltration on communist, socialist and other left-wing organizations.

In its ruling, the court said today's political climate is so different from the 1960s and 1970s that the rules need to be changed.

'The era in which the Red Squad flourished is history, along with the Red Squad itself,' the court said. 'The instabilities of that era have largely disappeared. Fear of communist subversion, so strong a motivator of constitutional infringement in those days, has disappeared.

'Today, the concern, prudent and not paranoid, is with ideologically motivated terrorism,' the ruling continued. 'The city does not want to resurrect the Red Squad. It wants to be able to keep tabs on incipient terrorist groups. And if the ... investigation cannot begin until the group is well on its way toward the commission of terrorist acts, the investigation may come too late to prevent the acts or identify the perpetrators.'

Douglas Lee, a lawyer and legal correspondent for the First Amendment Center, says the ruling is based on faulty reasoning.

'From a First Amendment perspective, no distinction exists between 'communist subversion' and 'ideologically motivated terrorism',' Lee wrote in the January 1, 2001 edition of The Freedom Forum Online. 'As long as First Amendment conduct does not directly incite imminent illegal action, it is protected, whether it advocates communism or some other anti-democratic message. Conduct falling outside the freedoms of speech and assembly never has been protected by the First Amendment and was not protected by the decree. The effect of modifying the decree, therefore, can only be to permit investigation of pure First Amendment conduct.'Lee is correct. And because the ruling came from a federal court, it potentially applies to all police intelligence divisions. So political activists across the country have a right to be concerned.

But the truth is, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies never stopped spying on law-abiding political dissidents. That why the Washington DC police department is able to boast that it successfully infiltrated the protesters who demonstrated against the inauguration of George W. Bush on January 20.

Confused? You should be. The corporate press has long pushed the myth that political spying in this country was substantially curtailed in the wake of the Watergate Scandal. Many aging liberals have embraced this myth as proof that they helped drive Richard Nixon out of office.

Reality is a little different, as I documented in my recently-released book Snitch Culture: How Citizens are Turned Into the Eyes and Ears of the State (Feral House, 2000).

Here's what happened.

Despite all the press coverage it received, Watergate was not the biggest political scandal of the early 1970s. A U.S. Senate subcommittee chaired by Frank Church discovered far more serious examples of illegal government surveillance than the botched break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and subsequent cover-up. Formally called the Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activity, the committee documented such infamous surveillance operations as the FBI's Counter Intelligence Programs (COINTELPRO), the CIA's Operation Chaos, and the NSA's Watch List.

The corporate media was so busy patting itself on the back over Nixon's resignation that it hardly covered the Church Committee's final report, which was released in April 1976. But the revelations were so shocking that the Department of Justice adopted new guidelines aimed at curtailing political surveillance. State legislatures and city councils passed similar restrictions, usually under threat of lawsuits by the ACLU.

But these victories were short-lived. For starters, the DOJ guidelines only applied to the FBI. They did not cover such federal law enforcement agencies as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which is part of the Treasury Department.

And federal, state and local law enforcement agencies quickly found ways around the restrictions. Among other things, they established information-sharing relationships with private organizations which spied on political dissidents. The best example is the Anti-Defamation League, which employs 'fact finders' in major cities to track suspected dissidents. Although the ADL calls itself a civil rights watchdog, it was caught spying on a wide range of both left and right wing organizations in the early 1990s. See for yourself. A list of the ADL spy files is posted on the Feral House website.Reporters looking into the ADL spy scandal confirmed the organization's involvement with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. As the liberal Village Voice said on May 11, 1993, 'In fact, the ADL has become a clearinghouse for law enforcement agencies. In the '70s and '80s, as many police intelligence units that gathered political information on citizens were shut down under court orders because they violated constitutional guarantees to privacy and freedom of speech and assembly, their files were often bequeathed to the ADL. The ADL, in turn, would often lend the files back to their original donor or broker them to another intelligence agency.'

But law enforcement agencies also took advantage of a huge loophole in the restrictions against political surveillance. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals is wrong when it claims that police cannot investigate a political group until it is well on its ways towards breaking the law. Police are always able to investigate anyone planning to break the law - and the planned crime doesn't even have to be a serious one. In fact, police can and do infiltrate groups who are merely planning peaceful civil disobedience demonstrations, such as blocking streets, sitting on sidewalks or occupying offices.

An example from my home town of Portland, Oregon proves this point.

In 1995, an anti-war protester named Douglas Squirrel sued the police for opening a file on him. Squirrel had been arrested during a street clash between the police and self-proclaimed anarchists outside a downtown rock club on July 18, 1993.

When Squirrel tried to post the $5,000 bail required of everyone else who had been arrested, Portland Police Captain Roy Kindrick, commander of the bureau's Central Precinct, called the jail and insisted that it be raised to $50,000. Kindrick said Squirrel was the leader of the anarchists, and responsible for 'planning' the riot.

Why did Kindrick think this? Squirrel had no criminal record at the time. But he had participated in a local group of peace activists known as B.E.I.R.U.T., which stood for Boisterous Extremists for Insurrection against Republicans and other Unprincipled Thugs. The name was inspired by former President George Bush, who called Portland a 'little Beirut' because of its long history of protest movements. Squirrel and the others with B.E.I.R.U.T. did little more than operate a telephone message line which announced visits by Republican officials and other conservative political figures. Although B.E.I.R.U.T. announced the visits, the protests were organized by other, more established organizations. Central American solidarity groups were especially active during the Reagan and Bush years. Nevertheless, the police had not only identified Squirrel as a major political organizer, but punished him for it by raising his bail.

After Squirrel got out of jail, he hired a lawyer and sued the police to find out what they had on him. After a great deal of stalling and stonewalling by the city, the trial finally took place on December 18 and 19, 1995. It provided a rare look at how police across the country use the pretext of preventing crimes to spy on political activists.The trial was covered by journalist Mitzi Waltz for PDXS, an alternative newspaper I published at the time. During the trial, Squirrel learned that the police had been spying on him and his friends since 1990, when B.E.I.R.U.T. posted a notice about an upcoming visit by Bush.

The first witness was Officer Larry Siewert, a member of the Criminal Intelligence Division, who admitted he routinely spied on political organizations. 'I was assigned to monitor subversive groups, the extremists on the left and on the right,' he testified under oath. 'Also Earth First!, animal rights groups. I also monitored the anti-abortion movement and provided all the dignitary protection.'

Also testifying was CIS Sergeant Irv McGeachy, who said that he and Siewert were regularly assigned to stake out political meetings, noting who comes and goes, taking down license plate numbers and compiling physical descriptions of everyone they see. McGeachy also said he and Siewart would check out rumors of political gatherings. 'We'd receive information that a demonstration or protest was going to occur,' he said. 'We routinely then would go out to bookstores and college campuses to see if this were occurring. Then we would make a tactical recommendation', about whether to send more officers or the riot squad.

Siewart and McGeachy also admitted that CID operated Confidential Reliable Informants (CRI) within many political groups in the Portland area. The trial revealed the Portland police kept dozens of informants on the payroll to infiltrate political organizations and to report on their activities. The police also used informants who are motivated by their opposition to the groups they are infiltrating.

The police released five confidential reports which mentioned Squirrel at the trial. They clearly showed that the police were gathering information on a broad range of liberal organizations, including Greenpeace International, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom, Northwest Veterans for Peace, the Portland Central American Solidarity Committee and NO on Hate, a gay rights group. Siewart and McGeachy testified that spying on these organizations was justified under the law because all their protests involve criminal activity - which the two officers defined as including such minor offenses as jaywalking and such traditional acts of civil disobedience as blocking sidewalks. 'Civil disobedience is some sort of peaceful action that could be a criminal act,' Siewert testified. 'It's still a crime.'

According to the trial testimony, preventing such 'crimes' justifies a lot of spying. Siewert testified that in the early 1990's, 'It took our whole unit just to keep on all the activities, all the different causes and demonstrations that are going on.'At the end of the trail, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Michael Marcus ruled that four of the five reports on Squirrel were legal, while one had to be purged because it contained no allegation of criminal activity. That report concerned a gathering involving a large number of local peace and justice activists who met at Colonel Sumner Park on July 26, 1992 to discuss common issues. The meeting was infiltrated by a CRI, who provided the names of the participants to Siewert. In his report on the gathering, Siewert noted that many of the groups were concerned about the lack of effective civilian oversight of the police. Although the city had such a board [the Portland Internal Investigation Auditing Committee (PIIAC)] the activists did not feel it had any real power. '[F]or the local issues, the main topic was the need to push for a civilian police review board,' the report stated.

Testifying under oath at the trial, Portland Police Officer Greg Kurath tried to justify spying on the Colonel Sumner Park gathering by saying the activists might take over PIIAC and use it for some kind of 'criminal activity.' Marcus responded by calling the theory 'preposterous,' asking, 'What on earth were you thinking here.'

This report would have been legal if it claimed the activists were planning a sit-down strike outside police headquarters, however. And this is the same argument that law enforcement agencies are currently making to justify spying on the emerging anti-corporate globablization movement.

After the World Trade Organization protests in Portland, law enforcement agencies infiltrated the activists planning to demonstrate against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington DC, the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, and the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. All of these agencies claimed their surveillance targets were planning to break the law. The corporate press ran wild stories about potential bio-terrorist attacks. But the police didn't need to suspect that someone was going to be killed to launch an undercover investigation.

Even before the 7th Circuit Court ruling, all it took was jaywalking rumor. SNITCH CULTURE (ISBN 0-922915-63-6) is available at local bookstores, on Amazon.com, and from Feral House, PO Box 13067, Los Angeles CALIF 90013. It costs $14.95.)

Pay Now Save $5!

Utne Summer 2016Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $40.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $45 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!

Facebook Instagram Twitter