Thursday, October 28, 2004

Big Brother Wide Awake in California

Secretive, unaccountable company sits at the information-sharing nexus of the country's law enforcement agencies.

By A.C. Thompson


THE LAW ENFORCEMENT Intelligence Unit's digital file cabinet could be one reason anticorporate rebels like Jon Sellers of Berkeley's Ruckus Society and freelance rabble-rouser David Solnit have found badge-wearers tailing them from protest to protest over the past several years. Never heard of LEIU? Few have.

The secretive organization is headquartered on California Department of Justice property and receives its funding from an array of police agencies, which pour detailed information on criminals and suspected criminals into a central computer database. In the not-so-distant analog past, LEIU was caught keeping hundreds of three-by-five-inch index cards on political dissidents – anti-Vietnam War activists, labor leaders, civil rights crusaders, and the like – many of whom were guilty of nothing more serious than a traffic infraction.

Just what the organization is doing today is largely a mystery to anyone outside its very tightly controlled orbit. Though the group is bankrolled by taxpayer dollars and inextricably intertwined with the public sector, its status as a private, nonprofit corporation means it has to disclose almost nothing to the masses about its activities. Shielded from any kind of government oversight, LEIU is, in many ways, the ultimate spy agency: so sleek and quiet almost nobody knows it even exists.

"They're still around?" gasps John Crew, a police practices analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

But don't get the wrong idea. LEIU is just one well-concealed component of the surveillance and intel matrix that's taken shape since 9/11 (see sidebar), a golem that may prevent another horrific attack or may be dooming us to a dystopian future.

  

Start asking questions about LEIU, and you'll hit walls real quick. LEIU itself won't say much – and until recently the organization didn't even have a public Web site. The state Justice Department won't give up much either, even though it houses LEIU's computers and two state officials play key roles at LEIU.

Through a formal legal request to the San Francisco Police Department, the Bay Guardian was able to obtain a slim document titled "LEIU History, Purpose, and Operations," which offers a very brief background sketch. "In the mid 1950's, local and state law enforcement agencies around the United States recognized that there was no single agency responsible for receiving, collating, maintaining or disseminating information on organized crime subjects," it states. LEIU was born during a 1956 meeting in San Francisco attended by 26 police agencies looking to fill that void.

From its origins combating gangsters, it soon morphed into a clearinghouse for information on all types of criminal behavior, not to mention dissident political activity. By the 1960s the organization had become the bane of civil libertarians who'd gotten a few peeks at the kind of data LEIU was hoarding. As Sheila O'Donnell, a licensed private investigator based in Marin County and an expert on LEIU, puts it, "They were clearly only trying to stop the left. They were trying to stop people from organizing against the war."

The files of that era were blatantly political: one person's crime was being an "admitted active Muslim," another was guilty of being a "capable public speaker," and a third was a "longtime communist party member." In one instance, the SFPD forwarded LEIU info on a labor activist they spied walking picket lines.

Much of the info was bunk. "The lack of accuracy and plethora of unverified reports and innuendos in the LEIU's files prompted investigations of the LEIU by local, state and federal agencies," notes an LEIU timeline compiled by Political Research Associates, a well-respected Massachusetts-based think tank. "The federal General Accounting Office found that only a small percent of the information recorded on the LEIU cards could be completely documented."
Leaks about LEIU's spy-on-the-lefties program provoked a string of civil suits, including one in California brought by the ACLU, which in 1980 went to the state Supreme Court. The ACLU argued it should have access to LEIU's files since they were the work product of public servants and, in many cases, of dubious investigative value; the court told it to get lost.

  

Lately, LEIU has sought to cultivate a slightly more open, slightly less creepy image, probably, in part, because a crew of determined protesters crashed the group's convention last year in Seattle. It now has a public Web site, on which it's posted its current "Criminal Intelligence File Guidelines."

Those guidelines, which go out to LEIU's 240 agencies, pointedly exclude keeping tabs on people simply because they support "unpopular causes" or belong to a particular ethnic group. Still, the rules are pretty wide open. Any individuals or businesses "suspected of being involved" in criminal activity are fair game.

At this point LEIU monitors the whole spectrum of crime, tracking everything from loan-sharking to securities fraud to "destruction of property" and "threats to public officials and private citizens" – breadth that leaves plenty of room for domestic dissidents.

The lone document we received from the SFPD indicates the department pays at least $495 annually to belong to LEIU's network and can access information through a "secure internet site." It also notes that the SFPD should have, in its files, the LEIU constitution and by-laws, bulletins, an LEIU membership roster, and other information, none of which was provided to us, though we asked for that type of paperwork.

LEIU is registered as a California nonprofit corporation. Yet for some reason it hasn't filed its nonprofit tax returns – known as IRS 990 forms – with the state. "There should be a 990 for this organization because their gross receipts were over $25,000 for this particular year," Tony Salazar at the Registry of Charitable Trusts, the state office that oversees nonprofits, explains via e-mail. "A letter will be sent to the organization requesting their 990 form."

The group's articles of incorporation reflect its overlap between the private and public realms. A man named Bob Morehouse is listed as LEIU's chief financial officer. Morehouse is also an employee of the California Department of Justice, assigned to the department's investigations bureau.

At Justice, spokesperson Hallye Jordan told us Morehouse and another Justice staffer are paid by LEIU to maintain its database, which ties into two other regional computer networks.

  

As far as LEIU boss Dick Wright is concerned, the excesses of the '60s and '70s were all a big misunderstanding. Wright, a captain with the Simi Valley Police Department, tells us that there were few guideposts for police intelligence squads during those turbulent days, that nobody really knew just what was acceptable. He even tips his hat to the ACLU, saying its lawsuits helped to define exactly what's legal when it comes to collecting intel on Americans.

Today's LEIU is a different beast, Wright argues. "LEIU was one of the leaders in establishing intelligence standards that balance the needs of law enforcement with the right to privacy," he says.

At this point, LEIU maintains it has absolutely no interest in compiling dossiers on law-abiding citizens, no matter how divergent their political beliefs. "There are people out there who think LEIU is a secret organization trampling on people's rights," Wright says. "That's simply not true."

Still, he admits, political demonstrations pose a "thorny issue." LEIU compiles no files on protesters engaged in lawful First Amendment-protected activities – there has to be, Wright says, at least the intention to engage in criminal behavior.

This, of course, is just a little problematic: all cops have to do is say they "suspect" someone of planning to commit a crime, and they can start building a dossier accessible to other cops around the country, and even to agencies in Canada and Australia.

And there's another problem. What if a protester breaks the law but doesn't have the slightest intention of doing anything felonious? In other words, is LEIU compiling info on, say, middle-aged Buddhists and Quakers who stage a sit-in in front of a federal office building, or queer activists who organize a march without official permits?

Questions like these worry private investigator O'Donnell. "What they have been doing is antidemocratic," she rails. "I believe what they're doing now is the same thing they were doing in the '60s and '70s, only now they're using terrorism as a cover."

No way, Wright counters. "We don't intend to be secretive. The whole purpose is to facilitate the exchange of information on criminal organizations."

Source: San Francisco Bay Guardian

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