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ACLU finds spying of anti-war, activist groups

The American Civil Liberties Union gave evidence on Friday of covert government surveillance of war protestors and political activists in California, which it decried as an “abuse of power.”
/ Source: The Associated Press

The American Civil Liberties Union released a compilation of covert government surveillance of war protesters and other political activists in California, decrying it as evidence of a “greater expansion of government power and the abuse of power” since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The ACLU’s Northern California branch said the findings show oversight of law-enforcement and intelligence agencies is too weak and called for the state to create a new watchdog over their activities.

“We recognize that much of what we’ve learned, we’ve learned by chance, and what that tells us is that this report is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dorothy Ehrlich, the group’s executive director.

Recent incidents
The ACLU cataloged several incidents of surveillance in recent years.

  • Two Oakland police officers posed as demonstrators ahead of a 2003 march and got themselves elected as organizers for the march. The march was meant to protest a clash the previous month in which Oakland police fired non-lethal projectiles at anti-war demonstrators. The infiltrators helped plan the march route, according to the ACLU.
  • The Fresno County Sheriff’s Department sent a deputy into an anti-war group, Peace Fresno, posing as a fellow activist. “Aaron Stokes,” who was actually Deputy Aaron Kilner, had attended rallies with the group and taken minutes at meetings in 2003. Attorney General Bill Lockyer opened an investigation in 2004, and later said he had “serious concerns” about the sheriff’s methods, but he has taken no action against the department nor issued a report about the inquiry, which remains open.
  • In 2004, union members at a demonstration identified two Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department Homeland Security Unit members in attendance. When California Labor Federation leader Art Pulaski confronted the men, they claimed they were there to support the rally.

“Since the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, we have found an even greater expansion of government power and the abuse of power,” Ehrlich said Thursday.

‘Room for improvement’
California law prohibits law enforcement officers from conducting undercover operations or engaging in surveillance of political activity in the absence of a reasonable suspicion of a crime, according to Lockyer.

The ACLU suggested the attorney general create “specific and direct” guidelines for local law enforcement agencies about the legal limits on collecting information and undercover monitoring of political activities. It also called for legislation to force local law enforcement to report their surveillance activities to the Legislature.

Lockyer spokesman Tom Dresslar said the attorney general had not yet read the report, released Thursday.

“While the AG believes law enforcement has made strides in better protecting civil liberties, he by no means has reached a comfort level,” Dresslar said. “There is room for improvement, and we look forward to working with the ACLU and other interested parties to address legitimate issues raised in the report.”