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Revamped Police Intelligence Bureaus and the 21st Century Surveillance State

The action of local police agencies in Colorado against lawful protesters has made national news twice in the last year. Revelations of the "spy files" of the Denver Police Intelligence Bureau have generated a stream of news reports since March 2002, recalling the era of "red squads" in the 1960s and 1970s. The decision by Colorado Springs police to use tear gas against a peaceful crowd of antiwar demonstrators on Feb. 15, 2003 (one of only two such uses of tear gas worldwide on that date, the other being Athens, Greece), similarly recalled a time when police tactical squads sought to criminalize protest itself.

Targets of police spying in Denver, and victims of the tear gas attack in Colorado Springs, have expressed shock and surprise to local media, assuming that even the tightened civil-liberties environment following the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act had not yet turned the U.S. into the repressive society critics warn it is becoming. Yet there is little to be surprised about, other than the fact that Colorado residents were able to learn of the existence of Denver Police Intelligence Bureau files through an accident of history. The formation of aggressive tactical intelligence groups, and the widespread use of SWAT team tools, has become commonplace in local police agencies around the country, thanks to Justice Department efforts that preceded the arrival of the Bush administration and the terror attacks of September 11.

In creating nationwide intelligence-agency information-sharing structures, the U.S. government has given us a dose of nostalgia in another way. In the late 1970s, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) within the Justice Department had been raked over the coals for providing computer funds to a private club of local intelligence agencies, the Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit, or LEIU. Through a national database infrastructure called Search Inc., LEAA put up the money for LEIU to maintain national information-sharing networks, which were not subject to the type of controls mandated for the FBI's National Crime Information Center.

The scandals eventually led to the demise of LEAA within the Justice Department. But LEIU never died, it just went underground. It has re-emerged in recent years as a low-key agency responsible for coordinating funds from a new Justice Department program, Regional Information Sharing Systems, or RISS. RISS provides the money for multi-state computer networks like the Rocky Mountain Information Network, which links police intelligence bureaus throughout the Southwest from its headquarters in Phoenix. LEIU helps local police agencies collate intelligence information for these regional networks, and the networks are not subject to having data verified by any outside authority.

While it is easy to demonize the role played by Attorney General John Ashcroft in expanding these networks, it is important to remember that Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno, strongly supported the expansion of local police assistance following the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, in November 1999. The RISS program disseminated new funding to regional intelligence networks during 2000, and Justice Department teams fanned out across the country to provide aid to police authorities faced with potential regional protests. The results were visible in the heavy police response in Washington, DC, to anti-globalization protests in April 2000. Local police did not turn to wider use of armored vehicles, mounted riders on horseback, SWAT squads in full body armor, tear gas, and rubber bullets simply because they were paranoid. Rather, these tactics were encouraged by the Justice Department, even during Clinton's final months in office.

In normal times, city and county councils might have played a role in limiting this expansion of police authority. But the fear of anarchist "black bloc" contingents in many protests led city authorities in most U.S. cities to not only acquiesce in letting police tactical training get out of hand, but also to pass absurd orders mandating "protest-free zones" and bans on wearing bandanas. Such local regulations were further expanded once Bush declared the war on terror, and were partially responsible for such absurd activities as a Washington, DC raid on a puppet-making workshop, and city council acceptance of police violence against peaceful demonstrators in Austin, Texas in March 2003.

Following passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, the Justice Department provided wide authority to regional offices of the FBI to open investigations on lawful groups critical of U.S. policy, including those organized by churches and schools. No longer would the FBI regional offices need to have their investigative techniques cleared by Washington, bringing the nation right back to the structure found in the FBI's Cointelpro days. At the same time, Justice encouraged local police agencies, funded by RISS and organized through LEIU, to loosen their restrictions on intelligence gathering.

Consequently, the revelations about the Denver spy files can be seen as a lucky anomaly for those who were targeted by the intelligence bureau. The American Civil Liberties Union, while working on a case involving a local Denver activist group concerned with police abuse, discovered the existence of the files in March 2002. Because Denver Mayor Wellington Webb had been active in civil rights struggles in years past and was sympathetic to victims of former red squads, he insisted that the files held by the intelligence bureau be purged, after giving those targeted a chance to see those files. One can almost feel tacit sympathy for the police officials responsible, since they were being chided in public for doing precisely the things John Ashcroft was encouraging them to do.

As the city of Denver set up a procedure to allow citizens to request files in the fall of 2002, new revelations kept spilling out, regarding regular monitoring of the American Indian Movement, peace groups, environmental groups, civil-rights groups, and even a handful of conservative pro-gun and pro-militia organizations. The police admitted keeping files on 3,200 individuals and more than 200 organizations. Much of the information collected was benign, though it became increasingly obvious over time that Denver Police had not merely kept details of public protests, but had infiltrated meetings of many groups.

When two local Colorado Springs peace groups, Citizens for Peace in Space and Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, requested their Denver files under the assumption that cities might have shared information, the revelations brought public concern to a new level. Files released in mid-November indicated regular information-sharing between police intelligence bureaus in Denver and Colorado Springs, and possible sharing with agencies as far afield as Omaha, Neb.

The files cover the period of 1998-99, well before both the post-Sept. 11 increase in civil surveillance in U.S. metropolitan police squads, and even pre-dating the expansion of Justice Department surveillance that followed the Seattle anti-globalization demonstrations of November 1999. Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union's Denver office, said that release of the files represents an anomaly that says little about what cities may be doing in the wake of the Bush administration's "War on Terror."

The files show that police had been particularly interested in a peace conference of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, which took place April 1998 at Colorado College in Colorado Springs; with a Plowshares civil disobedience action at a Minuteman missile silo in August 1998; a June 1998 demonstration at the Buckley Air Force Base intelligence base in Aurora, Colo.; a Space and International Law Conference at Denver University in February 1999; and a demonstration at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, in March 1999.

License plates were recorded and associated with specific individuals at the Denver law conference and the Peterson protest. Detailed analysis also was made by Denver police of the links between CPIS and the Justice and Peace Commission.

Police were particularly interested in international speakers, taking detailed notes of speeches by Helen John of the Menwith Hill Women's Peace Camp in England, and Regina Hagen of Darmstadt Friendensforum in Germany.

Because CPIS has been active in documenting the role played by national intelligence agencies, and by military space agencies such as the U.S. Space Command, in implementing first-strike warfare plans, local police authorities have worked with Air Force intelligence and investigative agencies at probing CPIS, particularly in targeting CPIS Executive Director Bill Sulzman. During a legal demonstration against a Donald Rumsfeld graduation speech at the Air Force Academy in May 2002, Sulzman and other demonstrators were illegally arrested by Colorado Springs Police when the Air Force claimed jurisdictional space over a hotel parking lot well outside the academy's boundaries. While he was being arrested, Sulzman overheard a police report on a squad-car radio, which made reference to CPIS as being "terrorist-affiliated."

Given the history of LEIU and similar national organizations in promoting unsubstantiated, outdated, and alarmist information regarding activists, it is no surprise that such (possibly deliberate) conflations of CPIS and other organizations would occur. The interest in sharing local police intelligence with the Pentagon also is self-evident. John Vinson, the director of Rocky Mountain Information Network, is a former director of intelligence at both NORAD and U.S. Space Command.

The Denver Police Department has pledged to undergo a series of reforms to eliminate inappropriate information gathering, though the city and the ACLU still had not settled the spy-files suits by early April of this year. In Colorado Springs, a mild inquiry was opened at the end of 2002 when the extent of information-sharing between Denver and Colorado Springs was revealed. There was little enthusiasm, however, for expanding any probes of the police in Colorado Springs.

In February, the interest in following the spy-files flap was overcome by a larger issue of police behavior. Colorado Springs was chosen as the site of a statewide rally to protest the coming attack on Iraq by the U.S. Several anarchist-affiliated groups had talked of taking actions to the streets in Colorado Springs, following a legal rally at a park on the east side of town. But neither rally participants nor the small (and relatively well-behaved) anarchist groups were prepared for the type of police response seen on February 15.

Following the rally of 4,000 people, demonstrators elected to line up along Academy Boulevard at approximately 1 p.m. At this time, all demonstrators were legally staying on both sides of the road, covering more than a mile on either side. During this time, an amateur videographer captured footage of police tactical squads donning full gas masks and body armor on a side street away from the demonstration.

Between 1:30 and 1:45, small affinity groups elected to enter the roadway to block traffic. In all cases, non-violent means of non-cooperation with police were used, though one individual ran from police when approached. At this point, a phalanx of police officers with gas masks and armor swept across Academy Boulevard one-half mile south of the main protest. Another group of squad cars closed off Academy about one mile to the north. At this point, all traffic on Academy in the vicinity of the protest had been halted.

When the crowd saw this, several dozen people entered the street, and a brass band joined them to hold a joyous rally characterized by dancing and clapping hands. Except for the affinity groups who had earlier engaged police, no one within the larger group was seeking a confrontation. As the phalanx of police moved north on the boulevard, demonstrators willingly moved off the street or up the street. Suddenly, at 2:05 p.m. near the parking lot originally set aside for the rally, the police unexpectedly set off a volley of tear gas. The gas was deliberately aimed at areas where people were trying to leave the rally area, preventing them from getting into cars, and often hitting children who had accompanied parents.

At a later planned civil disobedience at Peterson Air Force Base, 11 demonstrators who planned to be arrested were taken into custody - but so were 10 bystanders who could not leave the nearby strip-mall in the 30 seconds given by police for bystanders to disperse.

At first, Lt. Skip Arms and Police Chief Luis Velez attempted to justify the gassing as a spontaneous decision based on the behavior of the crowd, though the officers presented a view of the rally at odds with reality. Slowly, it emerged that the police had made a decision to use gas before the rally was over, based on intelligence they had received beforehand on possible actions by Denver and Boulder groups.

While no other U.S. cities have gone the lengths of Colorado Springs Police in using tear gas, police forces in several towns - Portland, Ore.; Austin, Texas; and New York City - have elected to take aggressive actions against demonstrators that assume disruptive actions by protesters before such actions occur. In part, this is due to Justice Department tutorials that began in early 2000, in the aftermath of Seattle. Decentralized anarchist groups use the element of surprise and affinity consensus, Justice officials warned, so local police must move pre-emptively to quell civil disobedience before it starts.

There is a certain irony in the similarities between a Defense Department acting pre-emptively against potential threats internationally, and a Justice Department acting pre-emptively against its own citizens who would challenge the new empire. Local police forces are the bottom-feeders, of course, in a long chain of command that ends with John Ashcroft. Through the USA PATRIOT Act itself, through specific Justice Department mandates following the PATRIOT Act's passage, and through new initiatives crystallized in the proposed PATRIOT Act II, Ashcroft is stifling the opportunity for dissent in this country, and using local police as the shock troops for enforcing the new repression.

Because of incidents such as the opening of the Denver spy files and the after-event analysis of the Feb. 15 tear-gassing, activists are allowed occasional glimpses into what is certainly taking place in every major urban area in the U.S. We can hope that broad exposure of these incidents will make the Justice Department, and by implication local police forces, slightly more reticent at performing crackdowns. But given the insatiable appetite of the new American empire and the low level of support which civil liberties enjoy from most U.S. citizens, we should not be surprised to see the recent Colorado events be only rare and random cracks of light intruding upon a new omniscient wall of repression enacted by the unilateral empire.


Loring Wirbel is an editorial director at CMP Media, a publishing and media company based in New York and London. He is on the boards of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, and of Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission. His book on military space and intelligence policies will be published this fall by Pluto Press in London. He lives in Monument, Colorado.

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"For as adamant as my country has been about civil liberties during peacetime, it has a long history of failing to preserve civil liberties when it perceived its national security threatened. This series of failures is particularly frustrating in that it appears to result not from informed and rational decisions that protecting civil liberties would expose the United States to unacceptable security risks, but rather from the episodic nature of our security crises. But it has proven unable to prevent itself from repeating the error when the next crisis came along."
--Supreme Court Justice William Brennan
December 22, 1987



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