State Tracked Protesters in the Name of Security
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office in charge of protecting California against terrorism has tracked demonstrations staged by political and antiwar groups, a practice that senior law enforcement officials say is an abuse of civil liberties.
The Times obtained reports prepared for the state Office of Homeland Security in recent months that contain details on the whereabouts and purpose of a number of political demonstrations throughout California.
The source of the information is listed in some cases as federal law enforcement agencies, including the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, an investigative arm of the U.S. Homeland Security department.
Political activities cited in the reports include:
* An animal rights rally outside a Canadian consulate office in San Francisco to protest the hunting of seals.
* A demonstration in Walnut Creek at which U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) and other officials spoke against the war in Iraq.
* A Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom gathering at a courthouse in Santa Barbara in support of an antiwar protester -- a 56-year-old Salinas woman -- facing federal trespassing charges.
California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer’s office learned of the monitoring activity more than two months ago. On Friday, a spokesman condemned the actions, saying they violated the groups’ constitutional right of free speech.
“When people exercise their 1st Amendment rights to rally, march and protest, they should not have to worry that intelligence officials are watching them or their activities are in any way being painted with the terrorism brush,” Lockyer spokesman Tom Dresslar said in an interview.
“That kind of conduct by anti-terrorism intelligence agencies threatens civil liberties, runs counter to our values and violates this office’s policy regarding criminal intelligence gathering,” Dresslar said.
The Times obtained two of the reports, which were compiled daily. The state homeland security office declined to release others.
The office is a 53-person operation that grew out of the Sept. 11 attacks and is financed primarily by federal money. Officials there said the details about the rallies were reported by SRA International, a company hired to provide counter-terrorism analysis.
The officials said such information made it into only the two reports that The Times obtained, out of 60-some daily intelligence reports produced since March.
No reports were produced before March, said Chris Bertelli, spokesman for the state office. When officials in the agency learned of the practice, he said, they ordered it stopped.
Copies of the reports were shared with the California Highway Patrol and the attorney general’s office. Nothing else was done with the information about the demonstrations, Bertelli said.
The reports are on the letterhead of a California anti-terrorism partnership that includes the homeland security office, the attorney general and the Highway Patrol.
Dresslar said staffers in Lockyer’s office saw the reports and raised concerns with their superiors, who complained to the Office of Homeland Security.
“When we discovered their existence, we informed OHS officials that we had absolutely no use for that kind of information,” Dresslar said. “Collecting information on protests has no legitimate anti-terrorism intelligence function. None. No intelligence agency has any need to maintain this kind of information.”
The reports obtained by The Times contain summaries of news articles about the war in Iraq, animal rights activists and terrorism. One has a section titled “Upcoming California Protests,” followed by summaries of the demonstrations. Each includes an entry for “officer safety issues.” No issues are cited.
One group whose antiwar rally was in the reports criticized the state agency’s practice.
“It seems like a waste of taxpayer dollars and a creeping invasion of our 1st Amendment rights to demonstrate and speak,” said Devlin Donnelly, assistant coordinator for the Chico Peace and Justice Center, which held a rally in Chico in March calling for an end to the war in Iraq.
Schwarzenegger had “no information and no knowledge that this was happening,” said Adam Mendelsohn, the governor’s communications director. “The governor feels that this particular information gathering is totally inappropriate and unacceptable.”
Anti-terrorism ideas from the state homeland security office have stirred qualms before.
Past and present members of the attorney general’s office said they were troubled by a meeting at the security office last September in which federal and state officials discussed ways to prevent Islamic militants from recruiting prison inmates. In attendance were officials from the FBI, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and various local law enforcement agencies, according to documents obtained by The Times.
One account of the meeting is provided in a whistle-blower complaint filed by a former high-ranking official in the attorney general’s office, Edward Manavian.
The complaint says homeland security information analyst William Hipsley proposed monitoring private conversations in state prisons between inmates and Islamic clergymen and, citing a potential national security threat from Iran, getting a list of Iranians living in California.
State law makes it a felony to eavesdrop on conversations between a person in custody and his attorney, doctor or religious advisor.
Brian Parriott, a spokesman for the state prison system, said it is not the corrections department’s practice to listen in on private conversations between inmates and visitors from the clergy.
And Mark Schlosberg, a policy director for the ACLU’s San Francisco office, said it is discriminatory to compile databases on broad groups of people based on national origin without any specific link to criminal activity.
“It’s contrary to our constitutional protections and our systems, and it’s also ineffective in terms of law enforcement,” Schlosberg said.
The state homeland security office denied Manavian’s version of events and issued rebuttals from Hipsley and a staff member who also attended.
In a written statement, Hipsley said that he never suggested “Muslim clerics offices be ‘bugged’ ” and that the subject of Iran never came up.
George Aradi, an assistant deputy director for information analysis, concurred in a separate statement.
Manavian was demoted in February. In his complaint, he said that happened in part because he refused to cooperate with “attempts to violate the civil rights of citizens in this state.”
He resigned in April. His complaint is pending before the state Personnel Board, and a hearing is scheduled in late July.
Lockyer’s office publicly criticized the monitoring actions after an inquiry from The Times.
But Allen Benitez, assistant chief of the attorney general’s criminal intelligence bureau, had told one of his bosses in a memo April 18 that the security office was gathering information on “political groups” and protests. He voiced concerns that such tracking “may not be allowed under the law.”
Lockyer’s office handled the matter privately with the security office, Dresslar said.
Questions about the office come at a time when assessments by nonpartisan reviewers have concluded the state is unprepared for a terrorist attack or natural disaster.
Schwarzenegger casts himself as being immersed in efforts to prepare California for disaster, making repeated public visits to the state’s emergency command center outside Sacramento, where he has watched over exercises simulating what would happen in a disaster, such as an earthquake or flood.
But a report by the legislative analyst’s office last year said California lacks “a unified strategic approach to homeland security.”
And more recently, the state’s Little Hoover Commission watchdog agency issued a report saying it is unclear who would take charge in the event of an emergency or terrorist attack.