What the Fuss Was About

THERE WAS THE ordinary, obligatory plastic name badge, the kind that plagues every trade convention. But there was also the cluster of uniformed officers at the hotel entrance; the uniformed officers sitting in the hall outside our conference room; the additional officer, with a dog, emerging from the room as we came down the hall.

So much bother for an annual meeting for 500 members of a group that, two weeks ago, most people in Seattle hadn't heard of. And for a one-on-one interview with Capt. Richard Wright, a Simi Valley, Calif., cop who is the volunteer general chairman of the Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit (LEIU)the focus of last week's series of protester confrontations with police and city officials.

Wright seems faintly bemused by the attention. He should probably get used to the visibility. Given rapidly expanding post-9/11 police powers and rampant stories of political activists being the targets of "anti-terror" lists or investigations, the concern that brought hundreds onto downtown streets last week isn't fading soon. Given that the LEIU's sole purpose is to facilitate sharing of information among local police agencies, the LEIU is a natural target for questions and suspicion. It doesn't help that, despite the fact that public law-enforcement agencies pay dues, the LEIU itself is private and needs not tell anyone what it's up to.

From the LEIU perspective, it's all a misunderstanding, and Wright is happy to explain.

The LEIU says it does not spy on anyone or hold anyone else's files. Its 240 member agenciesall of them state and local"collect their own information based on their legal parameters, whether it's local ordinances, state law, whatever it might be," Wright explains. "It's a pointer system. What they submit to LEIU is basic information regarding a subject that's involved or suspected of being involved in criminal activityname, description, date of birth, identification, those sort of things." If Seattle police submit my name, and San Francisco police want information on me, what the LEIU would give them, Wright says, is the name of the relevant Seattle investigator to call. The list of who to call about whom is kept by the California Department of Justice; there is no LEIU office, paid staff, or Web site.

THE LAST ERA in which the LEIU drew public scrutiny was the mid-1970s. A series of local lawsuits revealed that many local departments (including Seattle's) were using the private LEIU to keep intelligence files away from public scrutiny. Wright claims all that is ancient history, the combination of a tumultuous political era and the lack of standardization among local agencies in the first decade after 1965's landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut, which for the first time established privacy rights under the Constitution.

Since 1976, the LEIU and its member agencies have operated under a universal standard for the collection, storage, auditing, and dissemination of files on individuals or organizations suspected of criminal activity. "If we're gathering information," Wright says, "it must relate to crime." The settlement of a 1987 lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild included an agreement by the city of Albuquerque to begin using the standards. Wright calls it a watershed event: "Civil-liberty groups acknowledged that the LEIU standards provided a proper balance between the needs of law enforcement and the privacy needs of individuals."

So far, he adds, those standards have not changed significantly in 27 years. Since 9/11, only John Ashcroft's federal agencies have adopted standards that allow police to spy regardless of whether criminal activity is suspected.

But that's changing.

Monday, the Global Intelligence Working Group (GIWG), a committee charged with advising Congress on intelligence sharing, presented the first draft of a plan to create a uniform set of intelligence standards covering all types and levels of U.S. law enforcement. The target for final recommendations is October. Those standards are expected to be considerably more lax than the LEIU's current ones.

Wright says the LEIU is likely to be lukewarm to the plan. "We have found a standard that is not only operationally effective, but legally acceptable. I think we have some issues with being persuaded to come off of that standard because it works."

HOWEVER, IT DIDN'T work for the more than 3,000 peoplealmost all of them left-leaning activistson whose behalf the ACLU sued Denver's police department last year. While the Denver case is, again, the work of a local agencynot the LEIUit's a reminder of what any police department might do once free to spy on whomever they dislike.

Such precedents make many peoplenot just political activistsleery of a private organization with so little public accountability. In the 1950s, Wright says, the LEIU was set up as an alternative specifically because J. Edgar Hoover's FBI wouldn't share information with local agencies. But with all concerned likely to be adopting the same standards and sharing information, soon the private, inscrutable LEIU will face a different question.

Why should it continue to exist?


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