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ACLU catalogs government surveillance of political activities

AP / SCOTT LINDLAW | July 28 2006

SAN FRANCISCO - The American Civil Liberties Union released a compilation of covert government surveillance of political activists in northern and central California on Thursday, decrying a "greater expansion of government power and the abuse of power" since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The group's Northern California branch blamed weak oversight of law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, and called for a new state government watchdog over their activities.

"With inadequate regulation and an insufficient understanding of the protections afforded to protest and dissent, law enforcement has overstepped its bounds in monitoring political activity," the group said.

The ACLU of Northern California cataloged instances of that surveillance in recent years, some of it previously reported. Several incidents involved police infiltration of anti-war groups.

_Two Oakland police officers posed as demonstrators ahead of a 2003 march. Moreover, the infiltrators managed to get themselves elected as organizers of the march, which was meant to protest a clash the previous month in which Oakland police had fired beanbags and other non-lethal projectiles at anti-war demonstrators, injuring dozens of people. 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" had attended rallies with the group, and taken minutes at meetings in 2003. In fact, Aaron Stokes was Aaron M. Kilner, the sheriff's deputy. The president of Peace Fresno discovered this when she saw an obituary for Kilner disclosing his true identity. Attorney General Bill Lockyer opened an investigation in April 2004, and later said he had "serious concerns" about the sheriff's methods, but has taken no action against the department, nor issued a report about his inquiry, which remains open.

_In January 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. Pulaski later asked the two men, repeatedly, whether they were law enforcement agents. Eventually they acknowledged that they were.

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

"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.

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 of Northern California offered several recommendations for curbing "surveillance abuses."

Lockyer should offer "specific and direct" guidelines to local law enforcement on legal limits on collecting information and undercover monitoring of political activities, the group said. And he should press for law enforcement agencies to implement them.

The ACLU called for legislation that would force local law enforcement to report on their surveillance activities to the Legislature once a year, as well as laws that would regulate state intelligence agencies. One such bill currently under consideration would bar the California National Guard, previously enmeshed in a domestic spying scandal, from engaging in such surveillance without authorization from lawmakers.

And the Legislature should create an inspector general post - a new official who would investigate complaints against state-level intelligence agencies, the group said.

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

But, he said: "While the AG believes law enforcement has made strides in better protecting civil liberties, he by no means has reached a comfort level. 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."


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