San Francisco cops assigned to the FBI's terrorism task force can ignore local police orders and California privacy laws to spy on people without any evidence of a crime.
That's what a recently released memo appears to say — and it has sent shockwaves through the civil liberties community.
It also has members of the S.F. Police Commission asking why a carefully crafted set of rules on intelligence gathering, approved in the wake of police spy scandals in the 1990s, were bypassed without the knowledge or consent of the commission.
"It's a bombshell," said John Crew, a long-time police practices expert with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
The ACLU obtained the document April 4 under the California Public Records Act after a long battle. It's a 2007 memorandum of understanding outlining the terms of an agreement between the city and the FBI for San Francisco's participation in the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
And, according to Crew, it effectively puts local officers under the control of the FBI. "That means Police Commission policies do not apply," Crew said. "It allows San Francisco police to circumvent local intelligence-gathering policies and follow more permissive federal rules."
Veena Dubal, a staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, agreed: "This MOU confirms our worst fears," she said.
Dubal noted that in the waning months of the Bush administration, the FBI changed its policies to allow federal authorities to collect intelligence on a person even if the subject is not suspected of a crime. The FBI is now allowed to spy on Americans who have done nothing wrong — and who may be engaged in activities protected by the First Amendment.
FBI activity under this new "assessment" category has since come under fire, and a recent report in The New York Times showed that the FBI has conducted thousands of assessments each month, and that these guidelines continue under Obama.
And if the feds do control San Francisco police policy, then the San Francisco cops could be spying on innocent people — a dramatic change from longstanding city policy. "The MOU is disturbing," Police Commission member Petra DeJesus told the Guardian. "The department is assuring us that local policies are not being violated — but it looks as if it's subject to interpretation."
It's the latest sign of a dangerous trend: San Francisco cops are working closely with the feds, often in ways that run counter to city policy.
And it raises a far-reaching question: With a district attorney who used to be police chief, a civilian commission that isn't getting a straight story from the cops, and a climate of secrecy over San Francisco's intimate relations with outside agencies, who is watching the cops?
SPIES LIKE US
San Francisco has a long — and ugly — history of police surveillance on political groups. SFPD officers spied on law-abiding organizations during the 1984 Democratic National Convention; kept files in the 1980s on 100 Bay Area civil, labor, and special interest groups; and carried out undercover surveillance of political groups focused on El Salvador and Central America.
Those abuses led the Police Commission to develop a departmental general order in 1990 known as DGO 8.10. The local intelligence guidelines require "articulable and reasonable suspicion" before SFPD officers are allowed to collect information on anyone.
Even those rules weren't enough to halt the spies in blue. In 1993, police inspector Tom Gerard was caught spying on political groups — particularly Arab American and anti-apartheid organizations and groups Gerard described as "pinko" — and selling that information to agents for the Anti-Defamation League.