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The Cops Are Watching You | The Nation

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The Cops Are Watching You

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Col. David Mitchell, superintendent of the Maryland State Police, is sitting at the end of a big conference table at police headquarters near Baltimore. Mitchell, a lawyer and thirty-one-year veteran of Maryland law enforcement, is talking about how terrorism has added a new mission for his officers since September 11. "After 9/11 we found out how many things we needed to know," says Mitchell, beefy and bespectacled under a full head of gray hair. "How many and where is every mosque in the state of Maryland? And every synagogue. And every airport and every runway. And every cropduster."

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About the Author

Robert Dreyfuss
Bob Dreyfuss
Robert Dreyfuss, a Nation contributing editor, is an investigative journalist specializing in politics and national...

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Within weeks of the attacks, says Mitchell, his organization expanded its intelligence unit, putting it on round-the-clock duty. The state police strengthened its already close relations with the FBI's Baltimore field office, and brought in a retired bureau terrorism expert to head its antiterrorism squad. The police also established the Maryland Intelligence Network to improve the flow of information between the FBI and county police departments across the state. The intelligence unit, which already had five officers with top-secret national security clearances, is being reinforced with other cleared officers, and Mitchell himself is in the process of receiving clearance to handle classified information from the FBI and the CIA.

What's happening in Maryland--based on interviews with the FBI in Baltimore, federal officials and state and local police officials nationwide--is a microcosm of a national trend. From New York to Chicago, from Florida to California, police departments are creating, rebuilding or strengthening intelligence units and antiterrorism squads. It's a trend that began slowly in the 1990s, after the first World Trade Center attack and the Oklahoma City bombing, but it has accelerated sharply--with major pushes from the FBI and the Justice Department--since September. Some of the momentum is coming from police departments, responding to the new threat of terrorism and taking the opportunity to expand their powers. And some of it is coming from the Feds, in an effort to create "a seamless web" (in the words of Attorney General John Ashcroft) uniting local law enforcement, the FBI and the US intelligence community. A little-noticed provision of the USA Patriot Act, which passed Congress last fall, requires the FBI and CIA to train state and local police to handle national security information.

Ironically, all this is occurring in the complete absence of any actual terrorist activity. In Maryland, FBI and police officials could not identify even one recorded incident of terrorism in the state. And the same is true elsewhere. Chicago, for instance, which is in the process of substantially relaxing restrictions on police surveillance activity, has experienced zero incidents of terrorism since the 1970s, when Puerto Rican independence activists set off a bomb in the city. And, according to both Chicago Police Department and FBI officials, not a single incident of terrorism has been prevented, either. "We've arrested people on anthrax hoaxes and bomb scares," says Pat Camden, spokesman for the CPD. But incidents? Zilch.

Still, since September 11 the Maryland State Police are spending more and more time preparing to track potential terrorists, from international, Al Qaeda-style suspects to a wide range of home-grown groups that, they believe, might be prone to violence. With expanded powers--in March, Mitchell led the charge when the Maryland state legislature passed antiterrorism measures that mimicked the expanded wiretap and surveillance provisions of the USA Patriot Act--the police are building files on potential terrorist organizations, both in-state and across the country. "We read their literature, we interview people who've attended their rallies," Mitchell says. "A lot of stuff we collect, it's off the Internet." And, he says, when the potential for violence suggests that it's necessary, the police infiltrate organizations and develop informants inside them. When I interviewed him, it was only days before a major protest against the International Monetary Fund in nearby Washington. "I'll have troops down there," Mitchell said. "We know there's a history of groups that are hell-bent on violence, and we've got some intelligence activity going on there, too. We're keeping our ear to the ground."

Mitchell, blunt-spoken and direct, says the state police are well aware of the public's sensitivity about police intelligence. "To a lot of people it conjures up John Lennon files and Red Squads," he says. "It's a fine line, and I'm very familiar with constitutional guarantees." That police might violate those guarantees is a long-standing concern of the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the Maryland antiterrorism law, and of other civil liberties advocates, who worry that police might conflate efforts against criminal terrorists with moves against rambunctious protesters and noisy dissidents, especially in cases where civil disobedience shades into window-breaking, spray-painting and vandalism. At the very least, says Gregory Nojeim of the ACLU's Washington office, police antiterrorism units tend to monitor protected, free-speech activities of opposition groups and those with unpopular views. At worst, they can begin to repress them. "They're going to start reviving the Red Squads," predicts Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, referring to police operations that moved from targeting leftists to harassing civil rights and dissident groups before being shut down in the 1970s after abuses came to light. The FBI was forced to close down its Cointelpro operation, which spied on antiwar protesters and the New Left and often worked closely with the Red Squads.

The post-September 11 resurgence of police intelligence is too new for there to be evidence of abuses, but recent news from Denver, Colorado, shows what can happen. There, the ACLU revealed in March that since 1999 the police have maintained intelligence dossiers on 3,200 people in 208 organizations, from globalization protesters to the American Friends Service Committee, and from Amnesty International to the Chiapas Coalition and the American Indian Movement. "Individuals who are not even suspected of a crime and organizations that don't have a criminal history are labeled criminal extremists," says Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado.

Mitchell plans to travel to New York City to learn how police officials there have built the most formidable intelligence and antiterrorism squad in the nation. Last fall New York hired David Cohen, a thirty-six-year veteran of the CIA and former chief of its covert operations wing, to run its intelligence unit. "I'd like to duplicate New York City here," Mitchell says. Meanwhile, Mitchell is playing a key role in Maryland's fledgling FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF).

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