“Intelligence-led policing” became one of the most popular phrases among authorities after the Sept. 11 hijackings. Investigators wanted to compile oceans of information about potentially dangerous people and use super-computer technology to analyze it in search of evidence that perpetrators were planning another attack. They also vowed to exchange critical information among local, state and federal agencies. Trading data is not a new phenomenon. Guidelines restricting broad intelligence collection and sharing between law enforcement officials are partly the result of illegal spying abuses that occurred throughout the twentieth century. As part of the post-9/11 drive to make government more aware of terrorist threats, local authorities used over $325 million in federal homeland security grants to establish controversial “fusion centers” in virtually every state as a place where police could electronically swap tips with each other and agencies in Washington. Civil libertarians, however, worry that aggressive snooping campaigns and outsized databases containing sensitive personal information will lead to innocent people becoming caught up in intelligence-gathering operations and erode privacy rights. Those concerns are strongly rooted in history, and many Americans alive during the turbulent 1960s remember questionable domestic spying conducted by the FBI, CIA and local police. “Red Squads” were a common feature in city police departments around the United States, known for harassing anyone believed to be a communist sympathizer or other form of political agitator. But Red Squads grew out of control, and the public became increasingly angry that police were amassing spy files and suspicious-activities reports on thousands of people and groups, many of them harmless neighborhood organizers, elderly peace protesters and civil rights activists. Intelligence units carried out illegal raids, used paid informers for infiltration, beat demonstrators in the streets and supplied police department brass with ammunition for use against political foes. A cascade of lawsuits and outcry eventually forced the squads to curtail many of their activities or fold up altogether. During the spring of 1956, leaders from more than two dozen police departments gathered in San Francisco to discuss how they could better coordinate criminal intelligence “not available through regular police channels.” Notably, though, the Law enforcement Intelligence Unit, as it became known, did more than just collect information about suspected violent criminals and gangsters. They made political protesters and “subversives” a major focus of the group’s attention. American Civil Liberties Union attorney Frank Donner chronicled the LEIU’s trajectory in his 1990 book Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America using documents about its activities released through a Freedom of Information Act request. Dozens of police departments became involved in the LEIU, and the now-deceased Donner described the group’s core function as “a clearinghouse for file data (‘intelligence’) supplied by its members.” Though made up of police officers paid with taxpayer dollars, the LEIU cast itself as a private organization to avoid lawsuits and investigations inquiring about the contents of intelligence files. It feared the public would disapprove of data kept on political subjects rather than organized criminals, Donner concluded. In fact, Donner described how one informant supplied information to a police intelligence unit in Des Moines, Iowa, before working for the FBI. “When he was exposed and his identity revealed,” Donner said of the informer, “he was, as a result of an arrangement with the LEIU, detailed to work undercover on political surveillance assignments for police intelligence units in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.” The Washington Post in May of 1975 reported on the man’s work as a spy when he spoke to Senate investigators about it. According to the paper: “The agent’s description of his operations under LEIU sponsorship conflicts with the organization’s stated purpose of exchanging information on organized crime.” His list of surveillance targets included civil-liberties lawyers. The LEIU remains a tax-exempt nonprofit today, and the database Donner referred to can be accessed by police through the Regional Information Sharing System, which is funded by the Justice Department. Technology made it possible to automate what were once paper index cards, and many fusion centers now are wired into RISS, among them the Iowa Intelligence Fusion Center. Founded in late 2004, Iowa’s intelligence outpost is overseen by the state Department of Public Safety and serves as a centralized point for collecting, analyzing and disseminating information. It’s staffed by more than two-dozen full time analysts and investigators as well as an employee from the Iowa National Guard, according to a March 2007 report on fusion centers from the federal Government Accountability Office. Experts like Russell M. Porter, the director of Iowa’s fusion center, know the ugly legacy of Red Squads could poison the success of new intelligence-collection initiatives if police make any missteps. The LEIU has even advised agencies to read earlier accounts of abuses written by Donner and others to prevent scandals from ending contemporary fusion programs. “While fusion centers work to improve the vital information sharing capabilities needed to protect our communities, our state, and our nation,” Porter told a Senate committee on Capitol Hill during an April 2008 hearing, “it is critically important that they avoid the historical practices that led to recurring violations of privacy rights and civil liberties.” Porter is also chairman of the Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Units [http://www.leiu.org/], formerly known as the LEIU and now the oldest such organization in the United States. So how has Iowa performed with homeland security grants? The state’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division turned over some large Microsoft Word documents to us in response to a Public Records Law request, which are available for download here (expenditures from 2004 are in an Excel spreadsheet). You can search within them by county, or use another term, such as product manufacturer. For the most part, the records reflect final purchases made by communities across the state, from a description of the gear to its final cost. But the entries only range from 1999 to 2005. Preparedness grants were managed in Washington by the U.S. Justice Department until about 2002. If the “total actual” cost box is not complete, we were told by officials, that likely means the grantee, such as Allamakee County, Iowa, pursued a piece of equipment but didn’t obtain it in the end, either because the supplier was out or they ultimately declined for some reason. Otherwise, the buy went through. The Iowa Department of Public Safety purchased four ballistic shields costing more than $1,000 a piece using grant funds from 2003, for example. Tiny Muscatine County bought an incident-response trailer with a microwave, refrigerator and shower included. Others acquired hefty pick-up trucks costing between $20,000 and $30,000 each. The list also includes “spotting scopes,” essentially binoculars with a price tag of $1,700, pricey thermal-image cameras and night-vision devices reaching nearly $3,000. It’s worth noting that Iowa has more to worry about than just terrorists. The Department of Homeland Security distributes aid through FEMA to communities following presidentially declared disasters – like Hurricane Katrina, but also smaller snowstorms and spring flooding. The Iowa Department of Transportation used a resource management system to determine how much it deserved to be reimbursed from the federal government for materials and labor costs during one recovery effort. Auditors found during 2008 that a flaw in the system led to a whopping overcharge for expenses of $3.6 million. Officials promised to fix the problem in response, but when auditors returned an entire year later, the excess cash had still not been paid back. State emergency managers assured them again that things were being corrected.
G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.More by G.W. Schulz