Albion Monitor /Features

Policing Activists

by Mitzi Waltz


1. Kevin Jack Riley and Bruce Hoffman, Domestic Terrorism: A National Assessment of State and Local Preparedness (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 1995).

2. ibid.

3. Frank Donner, The Age of Surveillance (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980), p. 128.

4. Community Policing Consortium, "Understanding Community Policing: A Framework for Action," Bureau of Justice Assistance, Aug. 1994; available in electronic form

5. John Dermaut, "Disturbing `Deja Entendu' and Deja Vu," available in electronic form

Like a vampire who has developed a tolerance for garlic, Red Squads are back.

Throughout the Cold War, these guardians of political compliance spied on and harassed law-abiding activists who veered too far left of the political center. Dedicated civil rights advocates and others fought back and won on local, state, and federal fronts. But their success was often short-lived. New technologies; new laws; and increased interaction among international, federal, military, state, and local law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and private corporations are threatening not only to put Red Squads back in business nationwide, but to increase the scope of their power to pry, to harm, and to imprison.

With the "International Communist Conspiracy" gone, Red Squads need a new raison d'etre. Studies by RAND the Heritage Foundation, and several private companies in the security industry have provided proponents of the Surveillance State with both a rationale and a blueprint for action. First, these groups have presented research to the law enforcement community documenting that the public can be frightened by the specter of terrorism into accepting and even calling for increased spying.[1] Second, after studying anti-terrorist measures from around the world, they have decided that multi-jurisdictional taskforces offer the best way to circumvent civilian oversight. For example, the RAND report Domestic Terrorism: A National Assessment of State and Local Preparedness, explicitly touts taskforce participation as a way to get around local laws restricting political intelligence work, and also promotes taskforces as a mechanism for putting such operations on the local and state agenda by providing funding, equipment, publicity, and other inducements. And as we shall see, in cities where it operates counterterrorism taskforces, the FBI pressures local police to ditch limits on political spying.

The taskforce concept and the cooperation it engenders between local and federal agencies, has another benefit, according to this report: It allows federal agencies to obtain information on a broad range of activities that do not fall under the current legal definition of "terrorism," but that are of political interest. That's because local police are much more responsive to demands from large corporations and influential organizations. These groups often have significant influence over political or budgetary matters in the local arena and are not loath to use their clout to discipline "uncooperative" police. The RAND study reports that local police will generally share freely what they gather with higher-level agencies.[2]

This back-scratching is not a new practice: A 1976 General Accounting Office report about FBI investigative protocol noted that local and state police were the bureau's second most prolific source of information, surpassed only by its own informants.[3] In fact, in these days of grant-based "entrepreneurial" law-enforcement funding, the locals had better cooperate: Their budgets may depend on federal grants based on performing particular types of policing.

The taskforce trend began with the post-riot commissions of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As an official Department of Justice (DoJ) history of community policing puts it, "The police force's inability to handle urban unrest in an effective and appropriate manner brought demands by civic leaders and politicians for a reexamination of police practices."[4]

The 1967 Kerner Commission and 1968 Eisenhower Commission focused on the growing divide between police and "civilians" as it was angrily expressed in the Watts riot and other uprisings. The recommendations of these bodies touted police-community dialogue as the key to curbing such unrest, expressing the hope that federal oversight could end abuse of protesters and minorities by "rogue cops." This goal was the foundation for community policing as we know it today. Later commissions that concentrated on reducing street crime looked to federal agencies to improve training and equipment in local law enforcement.

Although community policing has not been as successful in curbing street crime as its proponents might have hoped, it has been a public relations success and enjoys the support of many well-intentioned liberals. But heirs to the Red Squads have found it an excellent mechanism as well. Savvy law enforcement types realized that under the community policing rubric, cops, community groups, local companies, private foundations, citizen informants, and federal agencies could form alliances without causing public outcry. Riding on fears from the trumped-up missing children campaign of the 1980s to the anti-drug hysteria of the 1990s community policing has been the public face of under-the-radar efforts to create an impenetrable web of surveillance and enforcement.

And not surprisingly in this age of globalization, the taskforce concept benefits from international support as well. Several anti-terrorism summits held by the G-7 nations since 1984 have advocated building strong national and international multi-agency taskforces, based on the models set up in Germany and the UK.[5]

6. Gerald P. Lynch, statement on behalf of RISS before the House Appropriations Committee, Commerce and Justice Subcommittee, Federal News Service, April 17, 1996.

7. In 1993, a former police officer in the employ of B'nai B'rith (ADL) was discovered to have collected numerous on left- and right-wing targets on behalf of that organization, and also for foreign governments, including South Africa. Confidential San Francisco police files were among the items found in his possession.

8. Department of Justice, "Final Revision to the Office of Justice Programs, Criminal Intelligence Systems Operating Policies," Sept. 16, 1993.

9. Ibid.


The original political objectives of community policing were not fully addressed until the current decade, as Watergate and the COINTELPRO revelations of the 1970s briefly turned federal intelligence agencies into political hot potatoes. But collective memory is short. In step with RAND's 1992 and 1995 recommendations, regional taskforces that directly address political and social activism are now proliferating, and existing systems have been strengthened. The previously missing ingredients appropriate technologies and a legal framework for cooperation are now falling into place.

For example, the Department of Justice's Regional Information Sharing Systems Program (RISS) includes six regional data- and equipment-sharing projects and has more than quadrupled the number of participating agencies since 1982. Most of this growth has occurred since 1990. From 1993-95 alone, RISS had a 47 percent increase in the number of database inquiries; just last year, it achieved full electronic connectivity among the centers. Each regional RISS project coordinates the intelligence efforts of hundreds of municipal, county,state, and federal agencies, as well as several Canadian provinces, the District of Columbia, and US intelligence operatives in Mexico. Funding for these centers and grants for member agencies are administered through the Bureau of Justice Assistance program.[6]

Officially, RISS projects concentrate on drug and organized crime activities, but since Criminal Intelligence units are used in many jurisdictions to surveil political suspects as well, their personnel also have access to information that RISS systems store. RISS documents and regulations make it clear that its databases are used to exchange data about politically-motivated crimes. This phenomenon was particularly obvious in a set of guidelines passed by the DoJ in late 1993 to curb abuses of criminal intelligence data banks in such cases, presumably at least in part owing to the Anti Defamation League (ADL) intelligence scandal earlier that year.[7] The rules included barring data gathered in violation of local, state or federal law; mandating security measures and penalties for unauthorized dissemination of data; and prohibiting the sharing of data on lawful political activity through taskforce databases.[8]

It is uncertain whether the limits set in these regulations have been carefully observed. When sent to taskforce members, the DoJ ruling was accompanied by detailed responses to objections received from participating local police agencies. These responses appeared to serve as advice for circumventing the new rules. They helpfully note, for example, that off-site databases under private control might be used to store data, such as field interrogation records, that don't meet DoJ criteria.[9]

10. Seth Rosenfeld, "FBI Wants S.F. Cops to Join Spy Squad," San Francisco Examiner, Jan. 12, 1997, p. A1.

11. Jim Herron Zamora, "S.F. Cops Say No to FBI Spy Unit," San Francisco Examiner, Jan. 16, 1997, p. A7.

12. Peter F. Episcopo and Darrin L. Moor, "Focus on Information Resources: The Violent Gang and Terrorism File," Law Enforcement Bulletin, Oct. 1996.

13. Federal Bureau of Investigation, "What is NCIC 2000?" NCIC 2000, v. 1, n. 1, Feb. 15, 1996.


The growth of taskforces has been fueled by fears of terrorism with the FBI piling on tinder from its central position in counterterrorism activities nationwide. The Bureau has quietly set up 14 counterterrorism task forces in major US cities: Boston, Newark, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, San Francisco and Los Angeles.[10] The centers recruit officers on urban police forces to work directly with the FBI. They are funded in part by the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act, which authorized $468 million for the FBI's counterterrorism and counterintelligence efforts.

Until an FBI proposal to add a new center in San Francisco sparked a public fight, the program was almost completely unknown outside the Bureau. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown opposed the center's establishment, saying that he would "not go along with or support any attempt to circumvent San Francisco's current policy on surveillance."[11] As a result of activist pressure and repeated scandals involving political spying, including the ADL case, San Francisco police regulations outlaw surveillance of lawful political activities.

While FBI activities that become public are subject to citizen pressure, the agency's internal operations rarely see sunshine. The recent revelations about mishandling and manufacturing of evidence at the FBI's crime lab the first whistleblowing in years to break the code of silence hint at the extent of the problems. Like the labs, which operated for decades without safeguards, the FBI's internal databases conceal abuses. And since they are not subject to the DoJ regulations or oversight, no one can assess how much erroneous or illegally gathered information they contain.

What is apparent is that both the FBI's internal and external political intelligence systems are extensive: Its Terrorist Information System contains data on more than 200,000 individuals and 3,000 groups, institutions and businesses. It is cross-referenced with criminal records; interview and surveillance transcripts; information on associates, contacts, victims and witnesses related to people in the database; plus financial, telephone, and other data if collected or obtained from other sources, such as the DoJ's FinCEN databases, which are used to track and analyze financial data linked to criminal suspects.[12]

Moreover, the National Crime Information Center 2000 (NCIC 2000) project now under way will extend the process of linking FBI information with other database systems.[13]

14. Interview, Feb. 1995

15. Mitzi Waltz, "Theodore Kaczynski and the Plot to Smear the Left," PDXS (Portland, Ore.), May 9, 1996.

16. Ibid.; and Capt. Gary A. Allgeyer; "Social Protests in the 1990s: Planning a Response," Law Enforcement Bulletin, Jan. 1996.

17. David B. Kopel, testimony before the Committee on the Judiciary, US Senate, May 24, 1995.

18. The White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security's new airport procedures allow security guards to detain and interrogate passengers who meet "terrorist profiles" based on information collected in a special database to be prepared for this purpose, including the subject's airport behavior and appearance, criminal and credit history, and travel itinerary. For more information, see Rory J. O'Connor, "Privacy Groups Outraged at Anti-Terrorism Plan to Screen Airline Passengers," San Jose Mercury, Sept. 6, 1996

19. For information on government targeting of activists, see: Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI's Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States (Boston: South End Press, 1990); for information on improper evidence handling and possible evidence falsification at the FBI forensics lab, see: Elaine Shannon, "The Gang that Couldn't Examine Straight," Time, April 28, 1997.


One reason these intelligence networks are dangerous is that they have insufficient safeguards for assuring the accuracy of information gathered. Despite the availability of high-tech tools, criminal intelligence officers and counterterrorism investigators increasingly rely on so-called Confidential Reliable Informants. In drug cases, CRIs tend to be motivated by money, personal animus, or promises of leniency for their own offenses.

One need only look at the recent case involving Qubilah Shabazz and Michael Fitzpatrick to see what can happen when financial incentives and political motivation drive federal investigations. Fitzpatrick, a freelance informer with an expensive drug habit and a long history of spying for cash, attempted to coerce Shabazz (the daughter of Malcolm X and a former high school classmate of Fitzpatrick's) into supporting an assassination attempt on Louis Farrakhan.Presenting himself as a suitor and playing on Shabazz's belief that Farrakhan was complicit in her father's assassination, Fitzpatrick had his FBI handlers tape their motel room conversations.

Fitzpatrick "never worried about his own illegal conduct, because quite correctly he thought that no matter what he did, he would be able to get off by ensnaring somebody else," said Shabazz's defense attorney Ronald Kuby. Letting "a small-time dirtbag" like Fitzpatrick create and then sell an entrapment scheme to the FBI, Kuby said, "resulted in humiliation and a serious threat of imprisonment for the innocent target, and increased paranoia among those activists whose paths have crossed with Fitzpatrick's."[14]

Unlike drug snitches, political CRIs sometimes serve private clients as well as the police, collecting cash from political opponents of the groups on which they spy.[15] Many organizations also field private investigators who then share the (frequently dubious) information they have collected with law enforcement.[16] Regardless of who pays the bills, one result of private intelligence operations can be an increase in agent provocateur activity, as paid informants and private security operatives attempt to justify their paychecks. In any case, whether public or private, whether snitching about drugs, politics or immigration, Confidential Reliable Informants are often anything but reliable.[17] As computer programmers say, GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. In the case of number-crunching computer operations, the result is bad data; in the case of files on human beings, "garbage in" could literally mean an unjust deportation, long jail term, or death sentence under the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act.

Another potentially dangerous application of the GIGO principle is provided by the Clinton administration's October 1996 airline rules. They include passenger "profiling" and movement-tracking via databases, and could easily lead to airport detentions, missed flights, and false arrests.[18] Considering the US government's history of harassment and even murder of activists and the recent revelations about the FBI lab, the easy retrieval of dubious data takes on a very sinister cast for those with long memories.[19]

20. Rome Laboratory Law Enforcement Technology Team, "The New Horizon: Transferring Defense Technology to Law Enforcement," Law Enforcement Bulletin, April 1996. Operated through NIJ, the transfer program makes links between military tech -- or more accurately, military contractors and military-technology researchers at the federal labs -- and civilian-sector law enforcement.

21. Ibid.

22. Ben N. Venzke, IWR Daily Update, IWR-Washington, Dec. 22, 1996.

23. William A Bayse, "Security Capabilities, Privacy & Integrity" (remarks at The First Conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy on March 27, 1991), IEEE Computer Science Press, 1991.

24. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, "Sprint to 96," Nov. 1995, available in electronic format

25. Ibid.

26. Paul DeRienzo and Bill Weinberg, "Will Gulf War Lead to Repression at Home?" The Guardian (New York), Jan. 16, 1991.


The taskforce concept so favored by the DoJ only compounds GIGO problems by spreading the misinformation. As with many features of modern policing, the success of taskforces depends heavily on information-gathering and data manipulation. Most of the technology needed originated in the military, and the Government Technology Transfer Program has played an important part through the National Institute of Justice's (NIJ) National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center, and also through the federal government's four regional technology centers at the Ames, Rome, Los Alamos, and Sandia National Laboratories, which had previously serviced the military and its contractors alone.[20]

"Command and control" software developed by the military to enhance communications and information exchange between ground forces and their commanders can be used to manage police operations during demonstrations or civil unrest. It may include rapid-access data banks, scene mapping (increasingly using satellite-based GIS technology), and field-command enhancements using high-tech communications.[21]

Powerful databases such as the Modernized Intelligence Data Base (MIDB) project currently being revamped by TRW Systems Integration Group for Army Intelligence;[22] NCIC 2000, which is being developed by MITRE Corp. for the FBI; and others let police programmers link activists with their causes, associates, employers, criminal records, mug shots and fingerprints, spending habits, and even tax information.[23] These information tools which meld together details collected by local police and higher- level analysis and background from federal agencies form the backbone of the taskforces' increasing power.

The computerized command and control system implemented for the $300 million Atlanta Olympics' security system is a case in point. Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) delivered it to the Atlanta Police Department well in advance of the Olympics as a replacement for the APD's paper-based scheduling system. The system included events-simulation capabilities, personnel-deployment features, interactive mapping, and various field communications features to facilitate military-style control of a large urban area.[24] It is based on software developed for the Gulf War's Operation Desert Storm, and prepared by a public-private partnership that included Oak Ridge, which is administered by Lockheed Martin for the federal government; the Center for the Application of Science Toward Law Enforcement; and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, better known as the office of the "drug czar."

Why would the president's top drug-war officials and a nuclear-research lab run by a major defense contractor be involved in such a project? Bob Hunter of ORNL's Computational Physics and Engineering Division said in a corporate press release that "the Office of National Drug Control Policy also wants this system to be readily transferable to other events, such as a California earthquake, that could shatter existing infrastructures."[25]

The drug czar is not in charge of natural-disaster planning that's the job of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). However, reporters covering the fall of Oliver North discovered that from FEMA's inception in 1979, the agency was handling domestic counterinsurgency planning as well. In 1984, it went so far as to hold national exercises for rounding up and detaining aliens and radicals in rural camps.[26]

It is not known if the Office of National Drug Control Policy is developing tools for carrying out the same sort of mission.

27. Riley and Hoffman, op. cit.

28. David Bacon, "Labor Slaps the Smug New Face of Unionbusting," CAQ, n. 60, Spring 1997, p. 36.

29. FBI, "Frequently Asked Questions about ANSIR"


A more general problem with data gathered by multi- jurisdictional taskforces is that, as noted earlier, local police are very susceptible to corporate pressure. For example, RAND found that local law enforcement agencies defined "terrorism" much more broadly than did their federal counterparts, often applying the label to environmentalist, animal rights, and union activities that affect large, powerful employers.[27] For example, citizens working to close down the contaminated Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southern Washington report being trailed and harassed by local police working in concert with private security officers. Another instance of the incestuous relationship that can develop between police and corporations was presented by the year-long Detroit newspaper strike. The newspaper companies involved actually reimbursed the local police to the tune of $2.1 million for services rendered in helping break the strike.[28] Couple this with the Anti-Terrorism Act which redefines any form of violent crime and many types of previously lawful political advocacy as "terrorism" for the purposes of federal prosecution and the possibilities are truly chilling.

Large corporations such as IBM and Westinghouse have their own powerful security and counterterrorism divisions. These companies have high-level clout and, more importantly, they have government connections through their military subsidiaries. While in the past, corporations have had more influence over other federal intelligence agencies, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Intelligence Assessment Team, the Department of Energy's intelligence unit and various military intelligence entities, they have recently found an increasingly sympathetic ear at the FBI. One of the Bureau's most important recent projects was a complete survey of potential terrorist targets that included hundreds of privately owned facilities. It has pledged to come up with plans to protect such targets and to respond to emergencies, tasks that will necessitate working even more closely with corporate and military security.[29]

In addition, both the federal government and its partner corporations have privatized many security and surveillance functions, such as guarding military facilities and handling international airport security. A few elite companies get the nod from both government and corporate clients for these sorts of jobs, most notably the Wackenhut Corporation, which is in charge of details ranging from Exxon oil facilities to the Nevada nuclear test site. Such firms maintain their own extensive databases, and can undertake projects on behalf of their clients outside the purview of laws on political intelligence-gathering.

30. Mary Kate Cary, "How States Can Fight Violent Crime: Two Dozen Steps to a Safer America," Heritage Foundation, 1993; available electronically

31. Electronic Privacy Information Coalition (EPIC), from a chart available in electronic form

32. William J. Dempsey, Jr., "Enterprise Crime Bureau," available in electronic form

33. DOJ, "A Final Revision...," op. cit.

34. Kevin Flynn and Lou Kilzer, "FBI Checked 10,000 Phone Calls in Bombing Case," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 15, 1997.


Transfer of military tools, many of which seem tailor-made for illegal political eavesdropping, is also putting a variety of new surveillance technologies into police hands. Speech- enhancement devices for monitoring faraway or muffled conversations, speaker-identification software similar to the "voice-print" devices used in some corporate security systems, software-based language translation, passive sensor systems and long-range radar surveillance technologies are just some of the projects on tap at the Northeast Regional Center, one of the four Government Technology Transfer Program centers run by National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Centers at the Rome, Ames, Sandia, and Los Alamos National Labs.

Computer technology has also facilitated quick and cheap surveillance of vast numbers of electronic communications, from phone calls, to faxes, to e-mail. A quick browse of police- technology web sites reveals surging interest in the acquisition and use of pen registers, which collect phone numbers called but don't record conversations. The Supreme Court decided in Smith v. Maryland (1979) that pen registers do not perform a search as defined under the Fourth Amendment, and can even be used without demonstrating probable cause, much less obtaining a warrant a simple subpoena to the phone company will do.[30]

Federal use of such devices doubled between 1987 and 1993.[31] With its low cost and easy accessibility, pen register data has been embraced even more fervently by local and state police for example, the Nassau, New York Enterprise Crime Unit, which covers organized crime activities, more than doubled its use of pen registers in 1995 alone.[32]

Most police database systems for criminal intelligence are now set up to store and cross-reference pen-register data routinely, and this information is not subject to the DoJ regulations governing RISS databases that were mentioned earlier. [33]

Scrutiny of phone records is also made easier through technology. In the Oklahoma City bombing case investigation, the FBI examined nearly 10,000 telephone calls to or from radical- right figures, including a lawyer suing the FBI over the Branch Davidian deaths at Waco, Texas.[34]

The taskforce structure itself dictates how such powers are brought to bear on local activists. These technologies are put into the hands of local officers who have been assigned the point position in a national "war on terrorism" by their federal taskforce partners. When the data and permission to use them are coupled with pressure from corporations and their front groups to watch particular types of activists, not to mention the availability of budget-padding grants for pursuing political targets, you have a recipe for repression. And oversight, if any, will depend largely as it did in the days of the Red Squads on the vigilance of citizens and their effectiveness in fighting back.

This article first appeared in Covert Action Quarterly

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