Democracy Under Surveillance

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Intelligence activity in the past decades has, all too often, exceeded the restraints on the exercise of governmental power which are imposed by our country’s Constitution, laws and traditions.” — The Church Committee Report, 1976

Over the last several years, American concerns over the rewriting of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act were premised on a very simple idea: Federal authorities cannot be trusted to behave responsibly. Though this concept was anchored in the U.S. Constitution, the actual concern was not just a conspiracy theory of ideologues and activists. For much of the 20th Century, the federal government grossly abused its power. According to the Church Committee report, which exposed the domestic spying abuses of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, at one point the FBI had over 500,000 domestic intelligence files, including 65,000 that were opened in 1972 alone. An estimated 100,000 Americans were the subject of U.S. Army Intelligence files. Between 1940 and 1973, the CIA and the FBI opened and photographed hundreds of thousands of private first class letters under programs that avoided judicial supervision. Much of this domestic surveillance activity was focused on peaceful groups:

Investigations have been directed against proponents of racial causes and women’s rights, outspoken apostles of nonviolence and racial harmony; establishment politicians; religious groups; and advocates of new lifestyles.

This included infiltrating the “Women’s Liberation Movement,” wiretapping Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., monitoring the NAACP, opening the mail of Sen. Adlai Stevenson (D-Ill.), and treating a bevy of peaceful student activism groups as if they were national security risks.

This is the context that should be used to examine the current efforts to gather intelligence on potential protesters at the two political conventions. As I noted yesterday, a document obtained by the Colorado ACLU shows that the Denver Police had requested a widespread effort to gather intelligence on such normal activity as people with “bicycles,” “maps,” and “helmets,” since all three devices could be used by violent protesters. (Recently, a Denver activist who had gathered bricks to do masonry work on her home was interviewed by police on suspicion of gathering projectiles for protests.) The end of the same memo also included this alarming notation: First responders who “discovered the above mentioned” were asked to contact Denver Police and the CIAC, a joint fusion center for information sharing between local authorities and the Department of Homeland Security.

More after the jump. . .

Now according to the CIAC website, the fusion center was set up to “prevent terrorism incidents in Colorado.” But under federal guidelines, “terrorism” is not limited to the acts of foreign aggressors like Al Qaeda. Violent domestic protesters, or domestic activists who partake in property destruction, are also considered “terrorists,” making all who participate in peaceful political protests potential “terrorist” suspects. (For more on the definition of “domestic terrorism,” which must involve actions that arguably endanger human life, see here.)

As recently as 2002, the Denver Police Department systematically monitored and gathered intelligence on the peaceful protest activities of area residents. Extensive files were kept on non-violent individuals and organizations who held less popular views. Some of these groups were falsely labeled “criminal extremists.” Back in 2003, the New York Times revealed a systematic effort by the FBI to spy on and interrogate activists in advance of the Democratic and Republican political conventions. The FBI employed groups called “Joint Terrorism Task Forces” to oversee the intelligence gathering operation.

Four years later, so-called “fusion centers” like CIAC have taken over much of the responsibilities of the old JTTFs. And the local fusion center will coordinate security responses at the Democratic Convention in Denver. This is from a recent ACLU report (.pdf) on these new centers:

[Fusion center] growth took place in the absence of any legal framework for regulated fusion centers’ activities. This lack of regulation quickly led to “mission creep,” in which fusion centers originally justified as anti-terrorism initiatives rapidly drifted to “all-crimes, all-hazards” policy “flexible enough for use in all emergencies.” The leadership at some fusion centers has admitted that they switched to an “all-hazards” approach so they could apply for a broader range of grants. . . . The federal government intends for fusion centers to broaden their sources of data “beyond criminal intelligence, to include federal intelligence as well as public and private sector data.”

According to other reports, local police in Los Angeles have been instructed to gather intelligence on otherwise legal “suspicious behaviors” so that it can be fed to the area “fusion center” and used by federal investigators. See .pdf here.

So should people in Denver who like to collect bicycles, maps, bricks or helmets assume they are being monitored? Are new files being created on peaceful activists? I don’t know. But I do know the memo released by the Denver Police Department is a cause for concern.