Civil liberties advocates question government-spying bill

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Is law enforcement trying to vastly expand its ability to spy on citizens? That’s the fear that was expressed at a hearing at the state Capitol last week.

The occasion: a bill designed to overhaul policies for handling criminal intelligence information, by making it easier for law enforcement agencies to keep and share information about citizens.

Under the proposed legislation, intelligence data collected on individuals by law enforcement officers could be kept secret for a year. The information would then be made available to the target of the probe unless it meets a series of criteria related to the prosecution of potential crimes.

The legislation would also authorize law enforcement agencies to share intelligence data with other government officials — not limited to police officers — when necessary to protect the public.

The bill was drafted by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and is sponsored by St. Paul DFLer Rep. John Lesch (pictured). (A companion bill has been introduced by Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley.)

In introducing the measure, Lesch acknowledged concerns about civil liberties but argued that some form of legislation is necessary to regulate the sharing of such data.

“A version of this will happen in future years, if not this year,” he said. “I think it’s important that this discussion be had.”

But the proposed legislation has raised alarm bells among peace activists and civil liberties advocates. They fear that the bill is overly broad and would lead to widespread spying on law-abiding citizens.

Teresa Nelson, an attorney with the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that the legislation would allow law enforcement agencies to keep “political dossiers” on citizens, while only creating an “illusion of security.”

Bernie Hesse, an organizer with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789, expressed a concern that labor unions would be targeted for engaging in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience, like walking picket lines.

“We’re afraid that we might be labeled as a criminal organization,” he said. “We’re very conscious of and appreciate the work that law enforcement agencies do, but we also don’t want to be restricted in some of the things that we have to do to bring about economic justice for workers.”

Retired FBI agent and veteran peace activist Coleen Rowley said that since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government has been obsessed with collecting intelligence data.

“One of the false notions since 9/11 that leads to this massive intelligence collection has been the idea that we did not have enough dots,” she said. “The failure to connect the dots was the problem, not that there was not enough dots.”

The concerns are exacerbated given prosecutions stemming from September’s Republican National Convention. Law enforcement relied extensively on undercover informants to infiltrate activist groups and build criminal cases. The most notorious example is the case of the RNC Eight, who are charged with criminally conspiring to disrupt the four-day gathering.

For now the legislation isn’t going anywhere. Acknowledging the concerns about the bill, Lesch moved that it be laid over for further consideration. That motion was adopted unanimously.

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