Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why the Towery Files Matter: Illegal Surveillance in Washington State

Tim Smith and Heidi Stephens

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the latest in a long line of First Amendment abuses by local police has fanned concerns about government spying. Domestic surveillance of peaceful activism is not only offensive and illegitimate, but also a serious threat to our Constitution that we must stop before it grows even worse.

As our state legislature has already decided:

"The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created."
Washington State Public Records Act

Yet it seems that we have, indeed, yielded our rights. Nationwide, FBI intelligence investigations have violated the civil liberties of innocent Americans far more frequently and to a greater extent than previously realized. The Electronic Freedom Foundation analyzed FBI reports to the Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB), an independent, civilian intelligence-monitoring group which reports to the President. Among the nearly 2,500 pages of FBI reports to the IOB, 768 specific violations from 2001 to 2008 were revealed.

The allure of secrets gathered for “security reasons” is often compelling and even compulsive to government, especially when combined with the massive amounts of money being funneled to various security agencies throughout the United States since 9/11. As a result, Washington State has a sophisticated and interconnected intelligence collection and analysis network, involving the Washington State Fusion Center and a network of Regional Intelligence Groups which share information with local and tribal authorities, national security entities, and private contractors.

According to the Heritage Foundation and the State of Washington Office of Financial Management, Washington State has received over $34 million solely for “Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention.” This is only part of three billion dollars of Homeland Security funding at state and local levels since the beginning of this century, now including over $277 million spent by the federal government nation-wide. With the level of surveillance often pervasive In Washington State, a new video by the ACLU of Washington highlights only a few recent examples of protected First Amendment activity being subjected to surveillance, in violation Federal and State laws.

Far too much of our intelligence collection has been directed at non-criminal actions. Our knowledge of inappropriate surveillance activity has come from Open Records Act requests in our attempts to monitor these security institutions created rapidly after 9/11. It is every citizen’s right — and responsibility — to oversee such agencies to prevent abuse, as history has repeatedly shown to occur if left unchecked.

Citizen oversight works. Because of a few citizens’ monitoring, the Cities of Aberdeen, Olympia, and Tacoma, WA are now involved in lawsuits arising from alleged mishandling of personally identifiable information used to suggest the criminalization of lawfully protected First Amendment activities. Groups targeted in Washington State range from all types, such as "Tea Party", NRA, Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Minutemen, Raging Grannies, Quakers, People for Peace Justice and Healing Pierce County, SNOW and many others (even non-organizational casual social gatherings) from all sides of the political spectrum.

The records clearly show that if you dissent you will be monitored, and no group or person is above suspicion. This is not what we Americans expect. This is not legitimate national security.

For example, documents obtained from the City of Tacoma's "Homeland Security Committee" show that in the spring of 2006, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) reported on a Women's Conference hosted annually by Governor Christine Gregoire at the Governor's Mansion in Olympia. ICE directed the Federal Protection Service (FPS), law enforcement and other security partners to monitor and report on such planned activities within their respective jurisdictions. Additionally, ICE requested that local law enforcement and other security partners provide follow-up reporting.

Is the “Women’s Leadership in Washington” really an extremist threat?

Intelligence reports pass between agencies at all levels without appropriate analysis, context, audit controls or criminal predicate. This unsubstantiated local “rumint” (rumor intelligence) is then quoted in other documents and has even made its way into Federal Homeland Security databases. For instance, a recently released file (known as the “Towery Dossier”) contains unconfirmed and un-redacted notes supplied by an informant, which were passed into the criminal intelligence system (though the document asserts no proof of crime), from which it was then passed out-of-state to other parts of the country for further misuse.

Not only was Towery’s uncorroborated information used nationally, but in March of 2007, local police used the information as justification to provoke and attack peaceful activists. We can only assume that such false “evidence” supports those who discourage and suppress legal assemblies, protests and demonstrations.

The Towery Dossier proves that the City of Tacoma, Pierce County and the South Sound Regional Intel Center have inappropriately retained, disseminated — and now publicly released — highly sensitive personal information about law-abiding people indicating no criminal intent. This means federal funds are being misused. Repeated claims from the Fusion Center that such leaks could never happen appear premature, raising the need for policies protecting personal information.

As we contemplate the security-crazed culture we have built, recall a passage in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass when the king raves: "The horror of that moment ... I shall never, never forget it." "You will, though," says the Red Queen, “if you don't make a memorandum of it."

The queen is right in two respects. First, inappropriate infiltration and reports of legal actions as “threatening” can smear and cause long-term damage to innocent citizens when such misleading information is senselessly spread among agencies. Second, We the People pay for these activities for our benefit, and must do our own investigation and documentation of these agencies’ activities to hold them accountable for their wrongdoing and make them change their ways.

We want law enforcement agencies to perform their duties as needed, but not by insinuating criminal activity where there is none and recklessly disseminating that information. It's long past time to create a mechanism for oversight, responsibility, and accountability.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

TNT Editorial: Did Army employee spy on protesters on his own time?

Much is in dispute in the John Towery affair, the case of the Army employee who spied on local antiwar protesters under a false name.
Here’s a fact that is not in dispute, according to recently released records: The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department used a confidential informant to penetrate the ranks of South Sound antiwar protesters and provide detailed information about them – including their Social Security numbers, in some cases. That information was shared with other local law enforcement agencies, including the Tacoma Police Department.

Then things get a little fuzzy.

The informant was Towery, then an employee of Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s Force Protection Division, which provides support for local law enforcement and security operations. Towery’s Army supervisor was aware that he was spying on the protesters and had approved the informant relationship with Pierce County.

At first glance, Towery’s actions appear to have been illegal. The federal Posse Comitatus Act bars the military from engaging in law enforcement actions against U.S. citizens.

The law is in place for good reason: The vast machinery of the U.S. military should not be brought to bear against the citizenry. Otherwise, the military might become an instrument of political repression and police state control.

But according to Towery’s Army supervisor, a legal firewall of sorts was in place. See, Towery supposedly was spying on his own time – as a public-spirited volunteer recruited by Pierce County detective Christopher Adamson – and presumably on his own dime or Pierce County’s.

As long as Towery technically wasn’t spying as an Army employee, his actions might not have violated the letter of federal law – though it could be argued that they still violated the spirit of the law.

What isn’t clear is exactly when that legal firewall was constructed: before Towery started spying or after the protesters found out who he really was? And how high was it? If he was entirely on his own, and not using federal resources, how did he obtain protesters’ Social Security numbers?

Towery’s Army supervisor and the Pierce County detective who said he recruited Towery both claim that the firewall was in place before Towery started spying. We hope they have proof to back that up in a court of law, which is where this is likely headed. A civil lawsuit has already been filed, and criminal charges are also possible.

Local law enforcement has a stake in getting information about groups that have a history of committing crimes. An ordinary informant passing intelligence to Pierce County is one thing, but an Army employee going undercover – even as a “volunteer” – is disturbing.

Citizens shouldn’t have to worry that their military may use its vast resources against them. Given the known facts of this case, the Army bears the burden of proof that this didn’t happen in our back yard.

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