Colorado is one among a handful of states where hundreds of firefighters, paramedics, police and even corporate employees are being trained to hunt down and report a broadly defined range of "suspicious activities." They’re called terrorism liaison officers. The federally supported initiative trains them to look out for "observed behavior that may be indicative of intelligence-gathering or pre-operational planning related to terrorism." [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Colorado is one of a handful of states where hundreds of firefighters, paramedics, police and even corporate employees are being trained to hunt down and report a broadly defined range of “suspicious activities.” They’re called terrorism liaison officers. The federally supported initiative trains them to look out for, quote, “observed behavior that may be indicative of intelligence-gathering or pre-operational planning related to terrorism.” The list of suspicious behaviors includes taking photographs or videos of no apparent aesthetic value, making measurements, drawings, or taking notes, and conversing in code.
The program is gaining traction, and terrorism liaison officers, or TLOs, have been deployed in at least eight states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Tennessee, Washington, DC and Wisconsin. According to the Denver Post, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is advocating for a nationwide implementation of the program. But civil liberties watchdogs have come out strongly against the initiative, calling it an expansion of domestic surveillance.
Bruce Finley is with us, a staff writer at the Denver Post. His latest article chronicles the story, called “Terror Watch Uses Local Eyes.” He joins us now from Denver. We’re also joined by Mark Silverstein, the legal director of the Colorado ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Bruce Finley, why don’t you lay out what you found?
BRUCE FINLEY: Well, it’s an effort to get better data in to what federal officials say is a necessary integrated system for early warning, to try to avert attacks. And so, we found out that Colorado now has 181 of these TLOs, terrorism liaison officers, posted. They are police, firefighters, paramedics, even security officials with the railroad or utility firms. And these are growing out of the fusion centers. I’ve been watching the creation of a fusion center here in Colorado since about 2005.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what a fusion center is.
BRUCE FINLEY: Intelligence relay stations, places where law enforcement people at a local level could submit a report. And then they’re — in Denver it’s a secure room in a state emergency compound just south of the city, and that is looped into federal computer networks. And the idea is to look at maybe a seemingly minor incident, but put it together with incidents elsewhere, and in doing so, put together a more complete picture. Maybe taking a flight lesson isn’t really a suspicious activity, but if you could look at a lot of flight lessons in different areas, you might put together a pattern. That’s the thinking of security officials who are developing these centers and these deployments of TLOs.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you might have a utility worker, not particularly trained in surveillance, but who goes to someone’s home because they’re called and maybe the electricity was turned off or something, and they might, well, use that opportunity to spy on what’s going on in the person’s home and then put it into a secret government database?
BRUCE FINLEY: They are reporting their findings, the TLOs, into secret government databases. And the people — they’re looking for people with broad access to the community who would add extra eyes and ears. That’s the thinking of the folks developing this. It’s a work in progress, as are the fusion centers. They go through training, I understand from talking with my sources. In Colorado, I think, the course was about twenty-four hours of training done over three days. Elsewhere, it was more like five days of training.
AMY GOODMAN: Mark Silverstein, can you talk about your concerns, the American Civil Liberties Union’s concerns about a program like this?
MARK SILVERSTEIN: Well, sure. This is really — this sounds very familiar, because we know that shortly after the current administration rolled out several initiatives to fight the “war on terror,” many of those initiatives also required sacrificing our civil liberties. And one of those, I think, was called the Total Information Awareness Program. That program caused so much controversy that Congress eventually shut it down. But it’s reemerging in other forms. The idea is to gather as much information as possible about as many people as possible and put this all together, allow it to be accessible to government officials who supposedly can analyze the patterns and determine which of those patterns are indicative of possible terrorist activity.
The trouble with that, besides sacrificing so much of our privacy for dubious results, is that there will be thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of false positives, completely innocent people going about completely innocent and legal activities who are going to be kicked up by whatever computer algorithm they use. And what’s going to happen with the people who are somewhat suspicious or very suspicious in these government programs and government databases? We’ve already seen the Terrorist Watch List and all of the false positives and all of the innocent people who are detained or singled out for extra scrutiny simply because their names are spelled somewhat similar to the name of somebody who might be a terrorist.
AMY GOODMAN: Bruce Finley, what did you find when it came to this secret government database? Who monitors it? How do you get on it? How do you get off it? Do individuals have a right to find out if they’re on it?
BRUCE FINLEY: Well, a lot of this is unclear. As a reporter, I was asking questions about what kind of information is being gathered, under what authority, how it’s being shared. It does appear to be something of a work in progress. In the eight states or so, it’s done differently. One question I have is whether initial observations are parked in shared access databases. What laws would apply? The state open record law? Or if it’s a federal database, does it come under federal privacy laws?
One thing that got me curious as a reporter also was — there was a reasonable openness and transparency here, but not total. For example, I asked to see a class syllabus for the training, and that wasn’t — that was rejected, that request. I also noticed this started without an announcement. It was something you sort of had to look into and push for to find out about.
AMY GOODMAN: I was interested in your interview with Mike German, who is a longtime FBI agent —
BRUCE FINLEY: Very helpful source.
AMY GOODMAN: — and his concerns.
BRUCE FINLEY: Yeah, a very helpful source, because he had worked for sixteen years with the FBI and now is advising the ACLU. And I think the concern is how the information will be shared when it comes into the system. And what will be the criteria? If it’s a reasonable suspicion criteria, which is traditional, or — as you know, some of these TLOs are looking into legal activity, as well as illegal activity. For example, in Colorado here, one of the specific things were bulk purchases of disposable cell phones, up to 150 of them. That’s interesting. The security officials can link this type of phone to use as detonators abroad for roadside bombs. And they’ve also been sold before abroad to raise money for terrorism. So, the idea is that perfectly legal activity, if it’s part of a pattern, might be of interest.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see a stepping up of the surveillance before the Democratic Convention here in Denver?
BRUCE FINLEY: I had no real sense that this was linked to the convention, in particular. Obviously, local security officials are going to be extra vigilant and looking at things of particular concern with the convention coming up. For example, we’ve had, I understand, several cases of people impersonating law enforcement officers in Colorado, going to the extent of pulling over vehicles on highways, which is pretty bold. And so, that’s one among many things that I understand from talking with TLOs that they’re tracking.
AMY GOODMAN: Mark Silverstein, in this lead-up to the Democratic Convention, the ACLU has brought several lawsuits. Can you describe them?
MARK SILVERSTEIN: Well, sure. I think one of our suits is a lawsuit against the city and county of Denver and the Secret Service. And what we’re trying to do in this lawsuit is maximize the ability of the public and protesters to exercise their First Amendment rights during the time of the convention here in Denver. So it concerns such things as parade routes or demonstration routes and how close the public and protesters might be able to get to the convention site in order to communicate viewpoints or messages to the delegates that are coming to the convention.
AMY GOODMAN: Other lawsuits?
MARK SILVERSTEIN: The other lawsuits, one of –- the other lawsuits are under the Colorado open records laws. We know that Denver has been allocated $25 million — well, $50 million in federal money to reimburse it for security-related expenses. Denver has budgeted $25 million of that for purchases of equipment. So we have asked, under the Colorado open records laws, for information about the budgeting and expenditure of that public money. Denver has resisted providing any details, and so we do have a lawsuit trying to get disclosure of that information. Another of the lawsuits, also under the Open Records Act, just seeks the policy and procedure manual for Denver’s pre-arraignment detention facility, the city jail. It’s where recent arrestees are taken. We have concerns about how prepared Denver is for what might be mass arrests of protesters during the convention.
AMY GOODMAN: Is there a clearing out of the jails going on right now?
MARK SILVERSTEIN: I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that in discussions, almost a year ago now, the ACLU and other groups asked the city officials, could you — "In the case of minor violations of the law, how about giving someone a notice to appear in court rather than making a full custodial arrest that requires taking someone to a detention facility, processing them, and having them post bond?" The police response at that time is, "Well, that would require a change of policy. Our current policy," we were told, was that for protests, they do not give citations. They make full custodial arrests.
A couple months later, there was a demonstration with eighty people sitting in the street in symbolic protest of Columbus Day. They were all arrested, taken to the city jail. And even after they had posted their bond money, some of them –- it took six, eight, ten, twelve hours to be released. And we’ve written to city, saying, look, if the city jail is overwhelmed by only eighty arrests of protesters, what’s going to happen if Denver, like New York City in 2004, has over a thousand people arrested? We’re afraid that the city jail just isn’t prepared for that many arrests, that that would overwhelm the staffing and infrastructure of the jail. So, we were trying to get the policies of the jail, for this and for other reasons. And the city essentially said, "No, we can’t release that to you for security reasons." So, we filled that lawsuit under the open records laws and have already gotten most of the policies.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there, but I want to thank you both for being with us, Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union, and Bruce Finley, a reporter for the Denver Post_, specializes in international affairs. We will link to your 9725077">article on terrorism liaison officers on our website and also link to the ACLU at democracynow.org.