Police Spying 101

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.)

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