A Legacy of Spying

Initially created with the promise to help fight terror at the local level, the majority of fusion centers across the United States since have shifted to a general crime-busting mission, partly to justify their annual operating budgets as state lawmakers face greater fiscal pressures due to a wilting economy.

Robust political support for them proliferated swiftly after 9/11 when reports blamed a failure to foresee the tragedy on bureaucratic turf wars and reluctance among federal, state and local agencies to share information with one another. Today, fusion centers collaborate with federal intelligence agencies that once eschewed state and local partnerships.

“Homeland security in a post-9/11 world requires a new paradigm for intelligence support,” Charles Allen, former chief intelligence officer for the Department of Homeland Security, told a crowd at the National Homeland Defense Foundation in Colorado last October. “This shift has led to a new information-sharing landscape – one including new partners, new roles and new rules that are still evolving.”

But a report on fusion centers issued in January of 2008 by the Congressional Research Service expressed concern that people without a sophisticated knowledge of intelligence operations and adequate guidance “will engage in intelligence collection that is not supported by law,” a reminiscence of spying abuses that occurred in the United States during the ‘60s and ‘70s, which led to widespread reforms.

Congressional investigations and media reports decades ago exposed “Red Squads,” local police units that infiltrated political-activist groups, spread misinformation and conducted raids without warrants to harass people believed to be communists. The FBI’s counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, sparked controversy, as did the CIA’s illegal domestic spying operations. Such tactics were commonly used against citizens engaged in activities protected by the First Amendment, including non-violent peace activists such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Beatle John Lennon.

Journalism students at the City University of New York uncovered documents in November showing that for more than two decades, the FBI secretly monitored the late Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam, who had dispatched critical reports from Vietnam that contradicted government claims about U.S. successes in the region.

In the ‘60s, the specter was communism; today it is terrorism. Recently in Maryland, documents obtained by the ACLU showed that the state police kept files on at least 20 groups they considered security risks, including Quakers, anti-death penalty advocates and a women’s anti-war group.

Former Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza served for eight years during an earlier period of his career in the New York City Police Department’s Bureau of Special Services, or BOSS, which became one of the most controversial Red Squads in the United States.

Bouza authored a master’s thesis in 1968 on his time with BOSS giving a rare look inside the both covert and overt ways local law enforcement at the time went about spying on groups viewed as subversive. While Bouza cast his own Red Squad as “objective” and strictly professional, his thesis offered little meaningful criteria for who actually deserved to be spied upon in a free society. He assumed a broad segment of the population was worthy of surveillance, from the “pacifist movement” to Civil Rights activists.

BOSS, in fact, fervently penetrated and eavesdropped on every conceivable group and scheduled protest in New York City, at the time building dossiers and an “intelligence index” that reportedly included more than 1.2 million names and tens of thousands of organizations. Among them were such terrorist cells as Mensa, the social group for braniacs.

As the now deceased American Civil Liberties Union attorney Frank Donner noted in his landmark 1990 book, Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America, increased public awareness about the unit’s hard-line tactics eventually caused it to be disfavored by judges and city officials. BOSS finally agreed to a dramatic curtailment of its activities in a 1985 legal settlement known as the Handschu case.

“We wandered astray,” Bouza conceded recently. “We headed up infiltrations of perfectly innocent groups and we got beat up over it.”

This story is part of a collaborative project by the Center for Public Integrity and CIR examining the effectiveness of America’s homeland security efforts. Support for this partnership project is provided by the Open Society Institute.

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