A thousand J. Edgar Hoovers

State and local police are taking it upon themselves to investigate antiwar activists -- and in the computer age, the threat to our civil liberties is even greater than it was in Hoover's day.

Published February 12, 2004 8:54PM (EST)

Political spying has many costs. One is that it poisons communities, putting dissidents in the same social position as criminals, co-conspirators or untrustworthy elements. Jennifer Albright, a 30-year-old lawyer in Albuquerque, N.M., believes such spying cost her her job with the Bernalillo County district attorney's office.

On Tuesday, March 25, two days after marching in a permitted demonstration against the war, Albright, then an assistant district attorney, was called into her boss's office and put on leave. The reason? Local police said she had identified undercover agents in the crowd at the protest, which she denies. Three days later, Albright was fired.

At the time, Deputy Chief of Police Ruben Davalos told the Associated Press, "One of the officers said that (Albright) actually walked straight up to the officer and stood face-to-face and stared at him for a period of time." He also said she was "seen pointing directly at the officers and getting others to see who they were in the crowd."

Albright denies this. "I didn't identify anybody," she says. "I don't recall seeing anyone that I knew was an officer, let alone an undercover officer."

Yet clearly there were undercover officers there, confirming a belief long held in Albuquerque's activist community. "Law enforcement has always appeared at any kind of peace group," says Albright. "At any antiwar group, it's just assumed that there's at least one undercover officer." Antiwar meetings, she says, are typically opened with someone saying, "We welcome all the law enforcement that is here. If you have any questions you can ask us now, and if you'd like to talk to us discreetly, we understand."

According to Maria Santelli, an employee at the Albuquerque Peace and Justice Center, where many antiwar demonstrations are organized, people are advised not to say anything at the center that they don't want police to hear. "If you want to say something covert, if direct action is planned without cooperation from police, we advise people not to speak in here," she says.

Jeff Arbogast, public information officer for the Albuquerque Police Department, which is part of a Joint Terrorism Task Force, refuses to say whether the department sends undercover cops to antiwar meetings. He defends the department's decision to use undercover agents at antiwar protests, saying, "We received intelligence information regarding the potential for people that could be present for other than peaceful purposes." Arbogast won't say where the intelligence came from.

Today, Albright works for a small criminal defense firm and plans to move into civil rights law. She's contemplating a lawsuit against the D.A.'s office, but says, "In all honesty it hasn't hurt my career. If anything it's bettered my career." Still, she calls what happened to her a "witch hunt."

She believes the police are motivated at least in part by personal hostility. "My point of view, which I tried to discuss with my boss before I was fired, is that I'm being retaliated against by the police department," she says. "Many law enforcement officers have prior military service. In talking to some of the officers, they seemed to take a real personal affront to anyone thinking the war is wrong. They said, 'That's a personal attack on us.' Somehow they equate themselves with the military."

The Albuquerque police haven't returned calls for comment.

Albright's story sounds unique, but across the country, in Grand Rapids, Mich., Abby Puls also had her job threatened by undercover cops who accused her of exposing them.

Puls, a 24-year-old Spanish translator who works on contract in the city court, was part of the People's Alliance, a group of antiwar activists who planned to demonstrate at the Federal Building the day the war started. They had also agreed to meet that night at Grand Rapids' Community Media Center to plan further actions, including acts of civil disobedience.

On March 20, as bombs fell on Baghdad, Puls went to the protest as planned and saw two people she knew. At the courthouse, Puls had gotten to know a few of the undercover cops who work on drug cases -- she even considered them friends. "Really funny, wild guys," she says, but not guys she expected to see protesting the war in Iraq.

So when she saw them at the Federal Building, she asked them what they were doing there. They told her, "Just hanging out, don't tell anyone." She says she didn't, but that other protesters figured out what they were up to. "They are so obviously not part of our group and can't answer questions without sounding like cops," Puls writes in an e-mail from Argentina, where she was traveling with a friend. "One of my friends came with a woman (cop) who started arguing with me in favor of the war at an antiwar protest -- smart." Later, another one of the officers posed for a picture holding a sign. The picture was posted on the Web, where Puls says someone else I.D.'d him.

That evening, about 40 people gathered at the Community Media Center to plan further actions. Puls couldn't make it, but even without her there to identify anyone, antiwar organizer Jeff Smith says one attendee, a quiet, clean-cut, well-built man in his 30s, made him uneasy.

"There were a few people in the room we didn't really know, so we passed around a sheet of paper to get people's names and phone numbers," says Smith, who runs the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy, a group that teaches media literacy and is housed in the Community Media Center. During a break in the meeting, Smith called the number the man had given, and found that it didn't work.

When the meeting resumed, the man was gone. Almost immediately, though, two police cars pulled up, saying that someone had reported "inappropriate behavior." They demanded the name of the owner of the building -- a building the Community Media Center has occupied for three years -- and wanted to know what it was used for.

The next day, there was another rally at the Federal Building, and Puls was there. As she was leaving, a man sitting in the passenger seat of a tan Ford Taurus called her over. There was another man in the driver's seat and a woman in the back. The passenger asked if she was the interpreter who works at the court. "Yes, my name's Abby," she said, and took the first man's outstretched hand. He shook her hand but didn't let go.

"Abby what?" he said.

"I repeat, 'Abby,' and he repeats the question this time with a firmer grip," Puls says. "It's starting to hurt so I tell him my last name."

After she told them her name, the man in the driver's seat accused her of identifying an undercover cop at the meeting the night before. He threatened her with arrest for hindering and opposing an officer. Then he told her, "I don't know how you are employed at the court, contract or employee, but if these judges find out you're choosing sides against the police, they may not want you in the courthouse translating. I'm not threatening you, I just want to warn you that if you I.D. us you'll be arrested. You happen to have an advantage working at the courthouse."

Puls took the threat seriously. She says she lost work when, after she was quoted in the paper at an antiwar demonstration, a conservative judge in the court that serves the cities of Grandville and Walker mentioned to her boss that he'd seen her name in the paper, and then suggested that she not come to his courtroom for a while, until things "cooled down."

"My boss told me this and, it being his contract, I agreed," she says, adding that she only lost about three hours of work. She talked to a lawyer acquaintance, she says, but the lawyer told her that while the court couldn't deny her work for her political views, "being contracted makes it easier for them to not hire us back under other pretenses."

The next Sunday, there was another meeting at the Community Media Center. Puls was late, but about a dozen others had arrived when a man and a woman showed up whom many of the activists suspected of being undercover cops. "Someone told them, 'I'm sorry, you can't come into this meeting,'" says activist Erica Freshour. "We've never seen them before, and our town is small enough that we know the regulars. We can also kind of tell the people who have never been to a demonstration before but are really into it."

The man threatened to call the police, says Freshour. "We kind of laughed, thinking, 'You are the police!'"

Just then, Puls arrived. She reached the top of the stairs when she saw the couple trying to get into the meeting. It was the driver of the Ford Taurus and the woman who'd been sitting in the back. Before they saw her, "someone pushes me into the hallway and says there is a vice cop and we are moving locations," Puls says. They had the meeting at a private home.

After that, Smith says, throughout the spring and summer police cars would frequently park outside the Community Media Center. He has since met with the community relations officer for the Grand Rapids Police Department to try to find out why his group was being watched, but says the officer hasn't been cooperative. Working with the ACLU, his group has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for any documents related to surveillance of the People's Alliance or the Community Media Center, but they haven't received anything yet.

Sgt. William Corner of the Grand Rapids Police Department's Internal Affairs Division acknowledges that the force uses undercover cops at political demonstrations to "keep an eye on whether anyone broke any laws." Asked whether undercover officers were sent to attend meetings at the Community Media Center, he said, "As far as I know, there were not, but if there were I wouldn't tell you that there were," because it's against department policy to reveal the activities of undercover police to the general public. Police were clearly paying attention to the Community Media Center, though -- Corner said the department was "made aware of" the meetings and had gathered information about them on the Internet.

The Grand Rapids Police Department is not part of a Joint Terrorism Task Force, and it's likely that the department undertook surveillance of antiwar activists on its own. Such local, community-based political spying is nothing new. In the '60s and '70s, says the ACLU's legislative counsel, Timothy Edgar, local police established counterintelligence squads that mimicked COINTELPRO -- and they were actually responsible for the harassment of activists.

"Most people who have any memory of the civil rights era and may have attended a demonstration and been observed by the government, the people who were tracking what they were doing, nine times out of 10 that would have been a state or local intelligence squad, not the FBI," says Edgar. "It's really many J. Edgar Hoovers that pose the greatest threat to civil liberties."

One big difference between then and now, though, is that without computers, the information collected by a thousand local J. Edgar Hoovers couldn't be quickly disseminated throughout the nation and the world.

"In the 1950s and '60s, police departments all over the country had 'red squads,'" says Chris Pyle, a politics professor at Mount Holyoke College and one of the country's foremost experts on domestic surveillance. "Although their work was never as well documented as that of the FBI and the military, it was far more extensive. There was considerable swapping, and it tended to go from the locals to the nationals."

Pyle saw it firsthand at the national level. A former captain of Army intelligence, Pyle exposed the military's domestic spying operations and went on to work for Sen. Frank Church during the congressional investigation of COINTELPRO. Today's domestic spying, he says, isn't nearly as extensive as it was at the height of the movement against the Vietnam War, largely because there aren't as many protests. Yet the surveillance we're seeing now, he says, is likely to increase if the antiwar and anti-Bush movements grow, and it may imperil civil liberties more than J. Edgar Hoover ever could.

"What we're seeing is something much larger in scale and danger than anything that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s," he says. "That's because of computers. Now, instead of having these agencies working in semi-isolation or occasional cooperation, there's the equivalent of the great Alaska pipeline running between them, and the information flows in both directions. In addition, in the 1950s or '60s, it took weeks of pavement pounding and doorknobbing for the FBI or police or military to collect personal information about people, the kind of information you need to put them under surveillance. Today that kind of information can be obtained by a few computer keystrokes. The harassment potential is much greater."

Meanwhile, information that's put into the system tends to spread. "Today, you have at least a dozen American agencies contributing information to each other's computer, and scores of foreign intelligence agencies contributing information," says Pyle.

Once a file is started on someone, it's difficult to erase, Pyle says.

That's bad news for protesters interrogated by the New York City Police Department about their political activities last year. As the ACLU reports, between February and April of 2003, the "NYPD had forced hundreds of protesters charged with minor offenses to surrender information about their political affiliations and prior protest activity. That information was being collected on a recently disclosed form titled 'Criminal Intelligence Division / Demonstration Debriefing Form.'"

In response to an ACLU complaint, the police department stopped the interrogations and promised to destroy the records relating to them.

But Pyle says that once created, such files have a way of proliferating -- and smearing the reputations of those on them, in a kind of Orwellian version of the game "telephone." "After Sept. 11, the FBI sent out a list of 'persons of interest' to a few corporations, casinos and airlines in a desperate attempt to increase security," he says. "These security departments then copied the lists, integrated them with their own lists and sent it to their friends. Within a month, there were 50 of these lists on the Internet. They'd been reproduced and reissued, by intelligence agencies, police departments or corporations from as far away as Brazil and Italy. But now most of the lists said these are terrorists or terrorist suspects, not persons of interest."

"I have never been more worried," Pyle says. "I was not nearly as worried when I was on Richard Nixon's enemies list, or when COINTELPRO was exposed."

Back then, he says, "I figured we could stop this kind of stuff."

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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