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Publication Date: Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Are we safe? Are we safe? (September 11, 2002)

Palo Alto's role in the war on terrorism

by Pam Sturner

On Monday Palo Alto will officially enlist in the war on terrorism.

That evening, Palo Alto Police Chief Pat Dwyer will head to the City Council with an updated version of the city's terrorism response plan, the product of a year-long effort to identify and defend local targets prone to terrorist attack.

Not surprisingly, detail is scant; anyone hoping for a list of targets will be disappointed.

What observers will see, however, is a civil defense mobilization of a sort most Palo Altans have never had cause to think about.

The centerpiece is the city's "terrorism working group," a team drawn from the police, fire, public works, utilities and information technology departments. With its first task completed -- updating the terrorism response plan -- it will turn its attention to the ongoing task of training and preparation. Most responsibilities will be added to employees' other duties; the only full-time position will be the directorship, to which Dwyer appointed police Capt. Kathleen McKenna in July.

This interdepartmental cooperation is the essence of antiterrorist response after Sept. 11, according to Dwyer. If the events of that day taught one lesson, many public officials agree, it was the need to involve traditionally "civilian" functions -- like public works, utilities and IT -- in antiterrorist planning. Their expertise acquired new significance as vulnerabilities once considered remotely attractive to terrorists, such as networked computers and chemicals stored at research facilities, suddenly loomed as potential menaces.

In early July, cities nationwide learned just how vulnerable their civilian "assets" could be when Mountain View's IT coordinator became suspicious about hits on the city's Web site from foreign addresses. The FBI later discovered that about 30 municipal Web sites had attracted repeat visits from computer users in countries known to harbor terrorists.

"What changed after Sept. 11 was the sense of immediacy," Dwyer said. "We're no longer planning for an abstraction."

The most striking manifestation of this change, in Dwyer's view, is an unprecedented level of intelligence-sharing among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

Every morning around 11, an e-mail appears in his box from the California Antiterrorism Information Center in Sacramento. It's a summary of the day's terrorism intelligence, drawn from mostly from international, national and state news and scattered with warnings about dates of concern.

Then there are the daily faxes from the FBI. As he chatted with a reporter, a bulletin came through asking local departments to watch out for a 21-year-old Saudi man reportedly seen with the hijackers before Sept. 11.

After he received the message, Dwyer shook his head in amazement. "This type of thing never occurred before," he said, referring to the inclusion of his department in such briefings.

The daily stream of information represents one aspect of closer cooperation with state and federal agencies. That is only part of it, however.

In the new order, information about terrorism is supposed to flow not only into Dwyer's office, but out as well. Palo Alto police are supposed to pass on any information they deem suspicious to the FBI, based on training and guidelines developed this year by the federal law enforcement agency.

For some, that is where the local role in antiterrorist efforts loses its clarity, and the lines of legitimate security planning shade toward unwarranted surveillance of civilians.

The mingling of federal direction with local execution of intelligence efforts has drawn sharp criticism from civil libertarians in California, who say new federal rules for investigations nullify the state's safeguards for civil rights.

One of the loudest critics has been the American Civil Liberties Union. Its members fear that powers assumed by the Department of Justice to interrogate, search and detain people in secret will result in racial profiling, an erosion of privacy, and lasting harm to the flow of public information.

As proof of these conclusions, the ACLU of Northern California points to two interrogation sweeps ordered by Attorney General John Ashcroft in November 2001 and March 2002. He asked local police departments to help question 8,000 Arab and Middle Eastern men in their jurisdictions, even though they were not suspected of any crimes.

According to the ACLU, the subjects were asked to describe their political beliefs and provide phone numbers of frequent contacts, including friends and family.

That is precisely the kind of unwarranted intrusion that ACLU attorneys Mark Schlosberg and Jayashri Srikantiah hoped to prevent in urging California police chiefs to not cooperate in the sweeps.

"The specter of officers from your department fanning out into the Arab and Muslim communities and knocking on doors of persons who have neither done nor are suspected of doing anything wrong should be as disturbing to you as it is to us," they wrote in a letter to local law enforcement agencies in April.

Schlosberg noted that a deeper conflict stems from Ashcroft's revisions to the rules for FBI investigations.

Since Sept. 11, the attorney general has granted FBI agents sweeping authority to infiltrate houses of worship and political groups, and to search people, homes, cars, work places, library records and online communications without notice or evidence of criminal activity.

Each of these activities is prohibited by the California constitution's privacy amendment, Schlosberg said. And that could put local and state police in an untenable position. If they carry out directives under FBI rules, or come in contact with information collected under them, Californian officers could violate the state constitution they are sworn to uphold.

Schlosberg pointed out that California voters approved the state's constitutional privacy amendment in 1972 after intelligence abuses during the civil rights movement. That experience adds an urgency to the current situation, he said.

"The problem with intelligence abuses is that you don't find out about them until late," he said. "We know what the problem is, (and) we're trying to prevent it from happening now."

Out in the field, Palo Alto police are preparing to put into practice the antiterrorist training they've been given. Even in these early days, it is clear that shades of gray will be the normal condition of their work.

The uncertainties begin with FBI guidelines for deciding what counts as suspicious.

Lt. Dennis Burns, the police department's training coordinator, offered some examples intended to clarify what officers will be looking for.

"Perhaps a police department stops a car, and sees plans for a bomb in the back seat -- that really happened, somewhere else. Or information like flight school information that we might not have thought was important before. Or suspicious people who are interviewed or contacted in or near airports or utilities. Or people who are taking pictures of things you wouldn't think are interesting, like dams," Burns said.

But who in those circumstances is suspicious enough to warrant a stop? Is it the pilot, perhaps late for a flight lesson, caught speeding along Embarcadero with his flight instruction book on the back seat? The birdwatcher who spends hours scanning the pond behind the dam? The aviation buff who hangs out at the airstrip?

Both Burns and Dwyer are adamant that Palo Alto officers have been trained to consider people's actions, and not their appearance, in making a stop. "It has to go way beyond having a Middle Eastern appearance or name. The rules of constitutional protection haven't changed," Dwyer said.

Be that as it may, those rules nonetheless seem to change when the feds are involved.

Last fall, Dwyer received a request from the Department of Justice to interview three Palo Alto residents of Middle Eastern descent

Many Bay Area police chiefs refused such requests, including those in San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland. Lacking any evidence of criminal activity on the subjects' part, they decried the effort as racial profiling that would merely harm community policing efforts.

Dwyer, however, had no such qualms, and agreed with the Department of Justice's characterization of the interview as a "voluntary contact." He contacted the individual on the list who resided in the city

"We are absolutely committed to respecting people's rights," Dwyer said. "As long as we're being courteous and professional, there's nothing wrong with asking someone to help."

In this case, the person was "glad to help," and Dwyer doesn't think any harm would have come if the contact hadn't been cooperative. "Had someone refused, I would have called (the FBI) and told them, and that would have been it," he said.

But how voluntary can a contact with police be -- especially when a refusal to cooperate is noted and duly passed on to a higher authority?

"Zero percent -- that would be the ACLU's position," said Harry Anisgard, the chair of the organization's Midpeninsula chapter.

For Dwyer, the problem appears to end at the city's borders. "What we control, we control. I don't know how another agency is going to use that information," he said.

Dwyer also admitted he was unaware of the potential conflict for him and his department between following FBI directives and upholding the state constitution.

"Nobody's ever asked me that," he said.

But after a few moments' reflection, he said he would consult the city's attorneys before complying with an intelligence request that made him uneasy.

"I have no way of knowing where the information is coming from. I would hope it is obtained in a lawful manner," he said.

But what is lawful, when agencies working closely together operate under conflicting rules?

"There's no real line anymore," Dwyer conceded.

Since Sept. 11, Helal Omeira, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) for Northern California, has also found himself on the front lines of this emerging conflict between security and civil rights.

He has seen firsthand how deeply the federal intelligence directives affect civilian life.

Although the Department of Justice has refused to release names or even a tally of people brought in for questioning, Omeira estimated that hundreds were called in from the South Bay.

From what Omeira heard anecdotally, treatment of the subjects varied. On the one hand, it was the FBI that alerted subjects of their constitutional right to have a lawyer present. In the end, CAIR referred more than 100 to lawyers.

However, he also heard of cases where agents suggested that for the privilege of living and working in the United States, subjects ought to cooperate.

When asked about CAIR's stance on the sweeps, Omeira is quick to say that CAIR has urged those called in for questioning to cooperate.

"If we can help (law enforcement agencies) to do their job efficiently and safely, and in a way less stressful for them and for the community, why not?" he asked.

"No one wants bad people out of their community more than us," he said. "If they exist, we would be the first to turn them in if we knew where they were."

Although it may be years before the full impact of today's antiterrorism directives is known, there are already signs that it has profoundly affected civil rights.

Manzoor Ghori, the director of the Islamic Society of North America on San Antonio Road, has an idea of just how profoundly: He and others believe the FBI has infiltrated a mosque in Santa Clara that serves the entire Peninsula.

Members deduced this based on questions asked of several people taken in during Ashcroft's sweeps. "Some of the things the FBI asked they could only know by being there," Ghori said.

While stressing that Palo Alto overwhelmingly supported its Muslim community after Sept. 11, Ghori is surprised at how quickly the Bush administration put in place its secretive framework for fighting terrorism.

"I wouldn't have thought it could be so easily done, or how easy it would be to sway Congress. That was a surprise," he said.

Farhan Syed, a Palo Alto native who volunteers for an outreach organization called the Islamic Speakers' Bureau, questions whether the administration's measures can work. He thinks there's a far more effective tool for fighting terror, one that has been overlooked: education.

Noting how little most Americans knew about the Muslim world at the time of last year's attack, Syed said the country will combat terrorism only after it rejects Hollywood stereotypes for an accurate understanding of Muslim culture and religion in its plurality.

It is a message he and the 14 other volunteers with the speakers' bureau took to more than 700 classrooms in the Bay Area after Sept. 11.

"Islam isn't specific to any ethnicity or geography. It's a set of beliefs and a way of life," he said. "Trying to pick people out based on race in an effort to stop terrorism is not going to be helpful."

As to where the war on terrorism might end, Syed looks to the history of American immigration, where he sees parallels between the current hostility toward Muslims and the treatment of other ethnic groups on arrival.

"Other groups either assimilated or managed to overcome those difficulties, and American communities as a whole accepted them," he said. "Muslims are now significant enough numbers that we're dealing with that."

While acknowledging that things could easily get worse for Muslims as the aftermath of Sept. 11 plays out, he nonetheless believed history points to a brighter future.

"I'm an eternal optimist," he said. "At some time, we'll be able to become just another ingredient of American society."

E-mail Pam Sturner at psturner@paweekly.com


 

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