Are Things Any Different in Denver?

The Center for Investigative Reporting sought to examine documents from fusion centers in both Denver and St. Paul to better understand what roles they played in the security preparations for last year’s Democratic and Republican national conventions. But authorities in Colorado refused a public-records request sent by CIR. The Colorado Information Analysis Center is run by the state’s Department of Public Safety. In a response letter, Spokesman Lance Clem said that releasing the records would be contrary to the public interest and “not only would compromise [the] security and investigative practices of numerous law enforcement agencies but would also violate confidentiality agreements that have been made with private partner organizations and federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.” The Denver Police Department, for its part, has a history of conducting activities that concern civil libertarians today – spying on individuals engaged in peaceful activities. As a result of a lawsuit filed in 2002 by the American Civil Liberties Union, hundreds of pages of records became public proving that starting in 1953, Denver police spied on as many as 3,200 individuals and 208 organizations. The list contained not only suspected criminal elements but also human rights, education and peace groups such as Amnesty International and the American Friends Service Committee. Police collected names, home addresses, personal descriptions and other information on individuals, including writing down license plates of vehicles used by those attending peaceful protests. This appeared to be in violation of a city policy prohibiting the collection of intelligence “unless such information directly relates to criminal conduct or activity and there is reasonable suspicion that the subject of the information may be involved in criminal conduct or activity.” Some of the targets were designated in the records as “criminal extremists” despite being clearly nonviolent. The records also showed that an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force collected information and created files “on the activities of peaceful protesters who have no connection to terrorism or any other criminal activity,” according to the ACLU. “Let me say this very clearly: the issues that have been raised both by the ACLU as well as others are legitimate,” Wellington Webb, the first African American mayor of Denver who served for 12 years, said in a statement at the time of the suit. “I am particularly sensitive to this issue because of my own personal experience with intelligence files. I, along with other elected officials, local civil rights and labor leaders were the subject of an FBI spy operation in the '70s, and I know what it feels like to be the subject of an intelligence gathering operation.” In April of 2003, the Denver police agreed to a settlement promising only to gather intelligence on individuals actually involved in committing crimes and not those who haven’t violated the law or are merely suspected of nonviolent civil disobedience. The so-called “spy files” were archived, indexed and made available at the Denver Public Library. Some pertaining to individuals are restricted, but the records will be open in their entirety by 2055. The documents obtained by the ACLU revealed the existence of a law enforcement group that appears to have been a precursor to today’s fusion center. The Multi-Agency Group Intelligence Conference included no fewer than two dozen Colorado law enforcement agencies and met at least into the 1990s to share intelligence information at bi-monthly meetings on left and right wing groups as well as peace organizations. As for the state’s fusion center activities today, there is some information available to the public. The federal Government Accountability Office produced a report in October of 2007 profiling many of the fusion centers that exist across the United States. According to the report, Colorado’s fusion center doesn’t have investigative powers, but it does “collect, analyze, and vet information for authenticity.” It is staffed full-time by the Colorado State Patrol, the state’s Department of Revenue, the National Guard and the FBI. Corrections and public health officials, the Colorado Springs Police Department and the U.S. Marshals Service participate part-time. Among other things, the center can access a nationwide information-sharing system controlled by the Department of Homeland Security, a Department of Justice database of antiterrorism and intelligence information and a secret command and control network run by the Department of Defense. It can also communicate with the U.S. Northern Command, created in 2002 as the military’s arm for combating terrorism attacks on American soil. It’s located at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. “Many reporters leap to inaccurate and unsubstantiated conclusions about fusion center databases,” Clem said. “[The Colorado Information Analysis Center] does not utilize credit histories, birth and death records and other private databases. The only time personal information is pursued is when a criminal investigation has been initiated.” He would not describe what databases are involved in the center’s work. The fusion center produces bulletins and summaries of major reported incidents and potential terrorist and criminal threats that can be distributed directly to police officers through in-car mobile data computers. Clem told CIR that construction of the center, completed in April of 2005, was paid for using federal homeland security grants. It’s difficult to tell what “private partner organizations” cooperate with law enforcement in Colorado as mentioned by Clem. Denver does have a chapter of Infragard, a coalition created in 1996 by the FBI and industry leaders to share sensitive information about the nation’s critical infrastructure – much of which is controlled by the private sector such as agriculture, fuel production and telecommunications. Chapter members include a security manager from the defense contractor Raytheon, the major engineering and construction firm CH2MHill and various banks. It’s also sponsored by GuideSTAR Technologies, a Colorado-based maker of threat assessment and police investigative software founded by former executives of the consumer data giant Acxiom. There are 86 Infragard chapters nationally and its 26,000 members are encouraged to phone in suspicious activities to the FBI, and participating corporations, in turn, are among the first to learn through a secure portal about possible threats. Clem said that during the Democratic National Convention, the center shared with local officials information given to the state by two federal agencies handling security at the event – the FBI and Secret Service. When asked if the fusion center has ever helped prevent a criminal or terrorist act, he said it aided police in linking two shooting incidents that occurred 65 miles away from one another during a weekend spree of violence in December 2007 and left five people dead. Officials there defined the shootings as “as an act of domestic terrorism,” but, according to news reports, it appears to have resulted from the gunman being kicked out of a Christian youth group. In addition, Clem’s example involved the response to an attack, not prevention of one. He said that Colorado officials observed public statements made by protest coordinators in advance of the DNC. Did they contemplate preemptive tactics like those that occurred in St. Paul? “We listened and prepared, but we didn’t take any action until an event actually occurred. … From our perspective, the convention week passed without serious incident.” About 150 arrests were made. This story is part of a collaborative project by the Center for Public Integrity and CIR examining the effectiveness of America’s homeland security efforts. Support for this partnership project is provided by the Open Society Institute.

More from this investigation:

Like our content? Help us do more.

Support Us