Spies Among Us
Despite a troubled history, police across the nation are keeping tabs on ordinary Americans
"Reasonable suspicion." The problem, skeptics say, is that no one is quite sure what the new rules are. "Hardly anyone knows what a fusion center should do," says Paul Wormeli of the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute, a Justice Department-backed training and technology center. "Some states have responded by putting 10 state troopers in a room to look at databases. That's a ridiculous approach." Another law enforcement veteran, deeply involved with the fusion centers, expressed similar frustration. "The money has been moved without guidance or structure, technical assistance, or training," says the official, who is not authorized to speak publicly. There are now guidelines, he adds, "but they're not binding on anyone." In the past year, the Justice Department has issued standards for local police on fusion centers and privacy issues, but they are only advisory. Most federal funding for the centers now comes from the Department of Homeland Security, but DHS also requires no intelligence standards from its grantees.
At the state level, regulations on police spying vary widely, but a general rule of thumb comes from the Justice Department's internal guidelines that forbid intelligence gathering on individuals unless there is a "reasonable suspicion" of criminal activity. Since the reforms of the 1970s, the FBI says its agents have followed this standard; Justice Department regulations require local police who receive federal funding to do the same in maintaining any intelligence files. But there is considerable leeway at the local level, and since 2001, judges have watered down police spying limits in Chicago and New York. The federal regs, moreover, have not stopped a parade of questionable cases.
Suspicion of spying is so rife among antiwar activists, who have loudly protested White House policy on Iraq, that some begin meetings by welcoming undercover cops who might be present. "People know and believe their activities are being monitored," says Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice, the country's largest antiwar coalition. There is some evidence to back this up. Documents and videotapes obtained from lawsuits against the NYPD reveal that its undercover officers have joined antiwar and even bicycle-rider rallies. In at least one case, an apparent undercover officer incited a crowd by faking his arrest. In Fresno, Calif., activists learned in 2003 that their group, Peace Fresno, had been infiltrated by a local sheriff's deputy--piecing it together after the man died in a car crash and his obituary appeared in the paper.
The California Anti-Terrorism Information Center, a $7 million fusion center run by the state Department of Justice, also ran into trouble in 2003 when it warned of potential violence at an antiwar protest at the port of Oakland. Mike Van Winkle, then a spokesman for the center, explained his concern to the Oakland Tribune: "You can make an easy kind of a link that, if you have a protest group protesting a war where the cause that's being fought against is international terrorism, you might have terrorism at that protest. You can almost argue that a protest against [the war] is a terrorist act." Officials quickly distanced themselves from the statement. The center's staff had confused political protest with terrorism, announced California's attorney general, who oversees the office.