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Working both inside and outside the courtroom, the ACLU of Colorado has been investigating and calling public attention to activities of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task (JTTF) that pose a threat to civil liberties.
There are over five dozen JTTFs around the country, including one at every FBI field office. They are staffed with FBI agents as well as detectives from local law enforcement agencies who are assigned to work full-time for the FBI. A detective from the Denver Police Department’s Intelligence Unit has been working full-time for the Denver JTTF since 1997. Since 2003, the Denver Police Department has assigned two full-time detectives to the JTTF. The Aurora Police Department, the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, and the Colorado State Patrol also contribute personnel to the Denver JTTF.
During the litigation of the Denver Police Department Spy Files case, the ACLU of Colorado obtained documents that indicate that the JTTF has been collecting information about peaceful political activities that have nothing to do with terrorism. We followed this discovery with a lengthy investigation into the practices of the JTTF, detailed below.
In August 2003, members of the organization Peace Fresno learned that an undercover detective working for the Fresno County Sheriff's Department had infiltrated their group and attended their meetings using a fake name, apparently as part of his assignment to work for the local anti-terrorism unit.
In October 2003, with antiwar rallies scheduled to take place around the country, the FBI issued a detailed “Intelligence Bulletin” to state and local law enforcement agencies. The memo, titled “Tactics Used During Protests and Demonstrations,” asks police to “be alert” to “possible indicators of protest activity.” Although the memo discusses some specific forms of possible criminal activity such as trespass and vandalism, it warns that even peaceful civil disobedience “can create a climate of disorder.” The memo also details legitimate activities that are protected by the First Amendment, such as “us[ing] the internet to recruit, raise funds, and coordinate their activities” and “fundraising in support of the legal defense of accused protesters.” It describes activists’ videotaping of police officers as an “intimidation technique” and warns that it may be used “for documenting potential cases of police brutality and for distribution of information over the internet.” After asking law enforcement to be on the lookout for “these possible indicators of protest activity,” the memo concludes by asking all law enforcement officers to “report any potentially illegal acts to the nearest FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.”
- ACLU Slams Classified FBI Memorandum, News Release: November 23, 2003
- FBI Intelligence Bulletin no. 89, Tactics Used During Protests and Demonstrations: October 15, 2003
In late 2003, after Denver officials refused to disclose the Memorandum of Understanding that spells out the Denver Police Department’s relationship with the JTTF, the ACLU of Colorado sued under the Colorado Open Records Act to obtain the document.
In February, 2004, an Iowa deputy sheriff assigned to the JTTF, who identified himself as working for the JTTF, served a federal prosecutor’s subpoena demanding that Drake University turn over records from an anti-war conference hosted by the school’s chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) the previous fall. The information subpoenaed included the names of the leaders of the school chapter of the NLG; records of the NLG chapter dating back to January 2002; and the names of everyone who attended the conference. After public outcry, the subpoenas were canceled.
In the summer of 2004, the Denver JTTF, as part of an organized program in at least six states, visited at least a dozen Denver activists and posed the same series of three questions: Are you planning to commit any crimes at the upcoming Democratic and Republican conventions? Do you know anyone who is planning any crimes? Are you aware that you commit a crime if you have some information but fail to tell the FBI?
The Colorado ACLU helped to publicize this multi-state campaign to intimidate dissenters. After the New York Times wrote a front-page article about these visits to the homes and workplaces of political activists, the ranking Democrat of the House Judiciary Committee asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the JTTF was engaged in “systematic political harassment and intimidation of legitimate antiwar protesters.”
- “The FBI Pursues an AFSC Intern,” McCarthyism Watch, The Progressive, Aug. 21, 2004
- “ACLU Denounces FBI Tactics Targeting Political Protesters,” News Release, Aug. 16, 2004
In October 2004, the independent auditor hired to monitor Denver’s compliance with the Spy Files Settlement Agreement questioned the role that Denver officers played in this JTTF campaign. The auditor further stated that because of FBI secrecy, he was not able to determine whether the two Denver detectives assigned to JTTF were complying with the Settlement Agreement, which forbids Denver officers from engaging in certain intelligence-gathering activities that are permitted by the less restrictive FBI guidelines.
On December 2, 2004, the Colorado ACLU invoked the Freedom of Information Act on behalf of 16 organizations and 10 individuals, seeking information from the FBI about the JTTF files on their peaceful political activity. The FOIA request was part of a nation-wide ACLU campaign to uncover the full extent of FBI political surveillance. The national ACLU and at least a half-dozen additional state ACLU affiliates filed similar requests for FBI documents the same day. Documents obtained from these and subsequent FOIA requests confirm that the FBI has been gathering information about nonviolent political activity under the guise of fighting terrorism.
On December 30, 2004, the ACLU wrote to Denver’s elected officials urging them to decide whether the Denver Police Department should continue to contribute two full-time detectives to the Denver JTTF. The letter explained that JTTF activities may pose a greater threat to civil liberties than the Denver Police Department practices that spawned the Spy Files controversy.
- ACLU letter to Denver Mayor and City Council raising concerns about Denver’s continued participation in FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force: December 30, 2004
In April 2005, after community organizations spearheaded by the ACLU of Oregon repeatedly raised concerns about civil liberties, political spying, and lack of accountability, the Portland City Council adopted a resolution that will end Portland’s participation in the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
- Portland v. the FBI: Civic Resistance to the Bush Administration's Culture of Fear and Secrecy, by Desiree Hellegers, June 24, 2005
In a May 2005 letter, the ACLU explained that Denver’s participation in the JTTF was preventing the City from fulfilling its responsibilities under the Spy Files settlement agreement. The ACLU called on called on Denver to find a solution or withdraw its detectives from the JTTF.