The Cops Are Watching You

The Cops Are Watching You

September 11 is being used as a reason to build up police intelligence units.


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.”

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).

A couple of exits around the Maryland beltway from the State Police office, just off Security Boulevard, sits the large, squat building that houses the Baltimore field office of the FBI and its 200 special agents. In the lobby, no one has gotten around to putting up a picture of the new FBI director, but hanging in an office is a worn-looking photograph of J. Edgar Hoover, who ran the Palmer raids in the 1920s and who headed the FBI for half a century. Inside, Mike Clemens is looking for real estate. Clemens, a veteran FBI agent who arrived in Baltimore just in time for September 11, began assembling Maryland’s JTTF within weeks of the attacks.

Begun in Chicago and New York in the 1980s, JTTFs proliferated in the 1990s, growing to about three dozen by last year. In the wake of September 11, Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller announced that all fifty-six FBI field offices would have a JTTF in place within a year. Modeled on antidrug task forces that began in the 1980s, the JTTFs were designed to bring state-of-the-art investigative techniques and technology to state and local police and a wide range of federal agencies, under the leadership of the FBI, in a mission aimed at both international and domestic terrorism.

In an interview, Clemens offered a rare glimpse into the scope and makeup of one of the FBI’s terrorism task forces. He currently oversees three squads of ten FBI agents each: one dealing with international terrorism, one domestic terrorism and one cyberterrorism and computer crimes. The Maryland JTTF unites the FBI with police departments around the state; it includes officers from the Maryland State Police; from the city of Baltimore; from Baltimore, Montgomery, Prince Georges, Anne Arundel and Howard counties; and from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Customs, the Secret Service, the Internal Revenue Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and other agencies, for a total of fifty to sixty full-time antiterrorist specialists. The real estate that Clemens needs is an off-site operations center for the task force, one that will include a large training facility for Maryland police officers.

“It’s very obvious now, as reflected by President Bush’s war on terrorism, that this effort is going to go on for a long time as a substantial, investigative effort,” says Clemens. Like Mitchell, Clemens forthrightly acknowledges that domestic antiterrorism investigations could easily run afoul of Americans’ civil liberties if the FBI and police are not careful, especially when it comes to protest groups. “There’s a fine line,” he says. “There has to be a reasonable indication that they are involved in violent activity or subversive activity that would rise to a level of a violation of the law.” Then he catches himself at the use of “subversive.” “Well, not subversive, but violent,” he adds. “Are they just a radical group that does a lot of yabbering, exercising their First Amendment rights, or is it more?”

To determine which, the FBI–working in conjunction with state and local police–often gathers a significant amount of information on groups that end up having no proclivity toward violence, Clemens says. “We have general intelligence files on domestic terrorist groups,” he says. “There are all sorts of those files. And again, you get into that fine line. We identify a group, develop sources inside it. Maybe we make fifteen contacts or more over a period of six months, and if they are all negative, we just leave them alone.”

Meanwhile, across Maryland, police departments are building intelligence units and cementing ties to the FBI. In Baltimore, the police have added more officers and money to the intelligence unit. The city hired a retired FBI agent with antiterrorism experience as a consultant on intelligence matters and posted intelligence officers from the Baltimore Police Department to New York and Washington. In Montgomery County, which abuts Washington, “quite a bit has changed for us,” says Deputy Police Chief Rob Barnhouse. He adds that “everybody in our department since 9/11 has responsibility for homeland security,” feeding into a five-person intelligence squad and the county’s permanent liaison with the JTTF. In Baltimore County the antiterrorism unit is tracking groups from the Ku Klux Klan to globalization activists. “We never like to talk about the intelligence unit,” says Bill Toohey, a spokesman for the county police. “It just monitors things.”

The most significant federal effort to prod police into paying attention to terrorism and political violence began in the 1990s under Attorney General Janet Reno. To induce state and local governments to cooperate, the Justice Department offered financial aid; currently there is $445 million in the pot. Since September 11 that effort has accelerated dramatically, and now Ashcroft and White House homeland security czar Tom Ridge are pledging a tenfold increase in federal subsidies to police for antiterrorism. Ridge is asking for $3.5 billion next year for local police, fire and emergency services–on top of what cities, and local police, are spending themselves. According to the US Conference of Mayors, just 200 cities will spend $2.6 billion by the end of 2002 in security costs related to antiterrorism. That, in turn, has created a bonanza for private industry to supply goods and services to police departments. At the mayors’ conference in Washington in January, eager vendors were everywhere displaying their wares, including sophisticated intelligence software.

Under the Justice Department program each state was asked to conduct a county-by-county assessment of potential terrorist threats in order to qualify for the federal largesse. In each city and county local police were required to identify up to fifteen groups or individuals called potential threat elements (PTEs). The Justice Department helpfully points out that the motivations of the PTEs could be “political, religious, racial, environmental [or] special interest.” At a stroke, the Justice Department prompted 17,000 state and local police departments to begin monitoring radicals.

The initial response was modest; by last September only one state–Utah–had qualified. But since September relentless pressure from Ashcroft has brought most states up to speed. In Maryland, according to Don Lumpkins of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, after an eighteen-month effort the police in Baltimore, Annapolis and twenty-three counties have come up with at least a dozen PTEs–none of which he or other officials would identify. In Iowa, Ellen Gordon, the state’s homeland security adviser, says “our Department of Public Safety figures there may be three or four terrorist-type cells” in the state, but she declined to identify them.

Having spurred many states and localities into launching or intensifying programs to monitor dissident groups, Ashcroft’s Justice Department is now supporting a series of training programs that explicitly urge police to worry not just about Al Qaeda-style terrorists but also about environmentalists and other troublesome activists. The core program was launched by one of Justice’s twenty-eight Regional Community Policing Institutes, based at Wichita State University in Kansas, which helps train police from 650 departments in Kansas and Nebraska. In its curriculum, called A Police Response to Terrorism in the Heartland: Integrating Law Enforcement Intelligence and Community Policing, the Wichita institute urges police to collect information on “enemies in our own backyard,” including “the Green Movement” –described in a footnote as “environmental activism that is aimed at political and social reform with the explicit attempt to develop environmental-friendly policy, law and behavior.”

“We have a virtual buffet of political extremism out here,” says David Carter, a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University and one of two authors of the curriculum. Carter, an instructor at the Wichita training site, warns that the police ought to be concerned “not just with Al Qaeda but with the groups involved in the [World Economic Forum] protests in New York, or the World Trade Organization protesters.” Sorting out the means to do this without violating the civil liberties of protest groups is tricky, says Carter. “How do we balance–which is a real conundrum–homeland security with our constitutional rights? Which is more important? Are our rights important, if we are being blown up?”

At the Justice Department, Dr. Sandra Webb, an official in the policing institute division, tried to distance herself from Carter’s curriculum, asserting that the material used in Wichita reflects only the opinions of the authors. But she did not disassociate the Justice Department from it, and she said that it will be presented this summer to representatives of all twenty-eight institutes so that it can be made available to police departments across the country. “We are trying to make it better known,” she says. “There will be a lot of interest.”

With polls showing large majorities of Americans willing to sacrifice civil liberties for security, and with Congress competing to outbid Ashcroft and Ridge in the war on terrorism, there is little to restrain the agglomeration of police powers by the FBI and state and local law enforcement. In the past, such restraints have been imposed only when widespread abuses have come to light, often many years after they began, leading to a public outcry. As the permanent war on terrorism unfolds, a decade may pass before the trauma of September 11 wears off and the pendulum begins to swing back–and by then, it’s more than likely that Congressional committees and investigative reporters will be unearthing new, cold-war-style abuses.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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