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Your Not-So-Secret Life

William H. Parker, the man who created the modern-day LAPD and inspired the character of Spock on Star Trek, issued an astounding directive soon after he was named poli ce chief in 1950. He declared that the files of the Intelligence Division would be his files, “official police records not subject to subpoena” or review by others. His intelligence-gathering model was the same as the KGB’s and Hoover‘s FBI: Get it raw, get it all and keep everything on everybody -- a philosophy that became the touchstone for LAPD intelligence-gatherers well into the 1980s. By 1976 the number of LAPD officers working Intelligence had expanded from a small unit of two divisions with 190 people, a figure that excluded the narcotics and vice intelligence units.

Without any rules, the LAPD went on to amass almost 2 million dossiers on 55,000 people and at least 200 law-abiding groups, including two-term Governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, Governor Jerry Brown, Mayor Tom Bradley, future chief of police Tom Reddin, City Councilmen Zev Yaroslavsky, Joel Wachs, Richard Alatorre, and organizations such as the National Organization for Women, the PTA, the World Council of Churches, Operation Breadbasket, and the Beverly Hills Democratic Club. Political candidates were torpedoed by the selective leaking of damaging information. Undercover agents had affairs with a major, politically active Hollywood star, and a high-ranking official of the ACLU. One officer so deeply infiltrated the Communist Party that he traveled to the Soviet Union. Some 30 years went by before the first written guidelines were put in place in a vain effort to rein in the division. In response, members of the Anti-Terrorist Division (ATD) secreted away files and hid them in their homes, fearing they did not meet the criteria for being stored in the ATD’s official records.

It was with all this in mind that I read the new guidelines the Police Commission recently approved in the wake of September 11. The new rules greatly expand the power of the LAPD‘s Anti-Terrorist Division. The original guidelines, drawn up in the mid-1980s, were in response to a lawsuit filed by civil liberties groups and individuals known as the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA). Provisions of the resulting consent decree included stringent new guidelines governing the conduct of ATD officers.

Those rules tightened the conduct of the division, according to former LAPD Assistant Chief David Dotson. “Before you could begin a surveillance you had to have some real good information, meet a very high threshold, and then be approved by the commission. There were rules spelling out the length of a surveillance, and a limit on the number of years officers could serve in the division. But a lot of this was never fully implemented and monitored.”

During the late 1980s, when Dotson was the assistant chief overseeing the ATD, the commission audited the files and found them in order. “But of course,” says Dotson, “they were bound by what the ATD told them it was doing. But who knew if there were other files someplace? There was no thorough audit that would catch that sort of thing if it was occurring. Instead, the audits were casual ones, usually done by a fairly low-level civilian employee of the Police Commission. Sometimes they got done, sometimes they didn’t.”

The new changes seem innocuous enough at first glance. But it‘s important to note the placement of prepositions, how a phrase is parsed. Many of the alterations seem directed at rewriting the regulations into a soft blur stuffed with permissive, vaguely worded limits on investigations, and with very little emphasis on direct oversight of the ATD, once an investigation has been launched. Given the abysmal record of abuse of power by the LAPD’s various intelligence units, one would have hoped that the Police Commission could have ignored the emotions of the moment, and kept the ATD on a very short leash. But that didn‘t hapzpen.

The changes of most significance deal with the monitoring of organizations, the kinds of groups that will be watched and the definition of what constitutes a terrorist organization. The old guidelines allowed the unit to “investigate, collect, analyze, maintain [files] and disseminate information only if an individual or organization is engaged” in certain actions. The new standard is “may be.” The difference is more than semantic. It’s like receiving a call from your spouse saying he or she will be working late, don‘t wait up, three times in one week, and catching him or her in bed with the latest hard body at the office. “May be engaged” gives the ATD permission to target groups or individuals based on a standard so low it’s like casting a fishing net to see what you get.

Similarly permissive language is now in place for keeping intelligence files on individuals or organizations. Now it will only take “reasonable suspicion” to believe that an activity or ideology may advocate criminal conduct, or may have the potential to significantly disrupt the public order. Any protest march, obviously, may have that potential. And any leader of that march may now have a file.

Undercover investigations have to be approved by a special Police Com-mission committee, but there is no apparent ongoing oversight review or monitoring of investigations by the Police Commission once they‘ve been launched by the ATD. Once investigations have been approved, the division has enormous discretion to make the choices it wants, while leaving very hazy the matter of who’s going to review those decisions, and how they‘ll be reviewed. Annual Police Commission audits are supposed to be conducted, but that’s not saying much given the sorry record of most Police Commissions in overseeing the department in general. And how will the commission ensure that the ATD doesn‘t once again maintain secret, unreported files and quietly disregard the “technicalities” imposed by “outsiders?” After all, the a commanding officer of the ATD will now enjoy enormous discretionary powers.

The changes in the rules beg the question of whether the ATD even needs the new powers. The suicide bombings have proven the limitations of intelligence- gathering when dealing with a tight-knit, highly secretive organizations such as al Qaeda; as well as the difficulty of dealing with such organizations without highly skilled and educated personnel to interpret the information being amassed.

As Chief Dotson puts it: “If the feds call up Bernie Parks, and say we have 15 people on our watch list that live in Los Angeles, and we’d like some assistance in surveilling them, I could see the department acting as an arm of the federal government in a joint task force. But I don‘t know how Parks can generate a list on his own. There’s simply not the level of knowledge of what‘s going on in the department. And given the critical shortage of officers, and the department’s ongoing recruitment and attrition problems, it‘s more than fair to ask if assigning officers to the ATD is the best way to deploy them.”

In any case, revised guidelines represent a significant weakening of controls that were set up to prevent the kind of lawless abuses that have become an LAPD trademark. No one really seems to know if the ATD adhered to the guidelines during the 1990s; the fact that no scandals were reported in the last decade is a hopeful sign. In the end it will come down to how Chief Parks, the commanding officer of the ATD and the Police Commission itself wants to interpret the new, loose rules. (The monitor overseeing the federal consent decree is expressly forbidden from monitoring the ATP.) If the new rules are used for broad fishing expeditions, we’ll go back to the future. If the recent whitewashed end of the Rampart scandal is any indication -- and I think it is -- I wouldn‘t bet against a return to the abuses of the past.


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