The Colorado Springs Police Department's practice of spying on political activists -- and passing information about them to other law-enforcement agencies -- has been far more extensive and systematic than department officials have previously admitted, newly released intelligence files indicate.
According to previously sealed court records released by the Colorado American Civil Liberties Union, Springs police spied on activists over a period of least 18 years and appear to have reported activists' identities to an FBI anti-terrorism outfit as recently as last year.
Moreover, the police department has for years participated in a secretive, regional police task force that in 1993 identified its sole purpose as sharing information on "left-wing," "right-wing" and "foreign" political groups.
The new information differs from past statements in which Colorado Springs police have denied routinely singling out activists for their political beliefs, saying they only monitored people suspected of "criminal activity." It also suggests that Police Chief Luis Velez didn't tell the whole story when he, at the City Council's request, gave a presentation detailing the department's intelligence-gathering practices in January. For instance, Velez never mentioned the department's participation in the regional task force.
"It appears that they were doing a great deal more intelligence-gathering, on multiple different groups, than just what we heard about during the presentation," said City Councilman Charles Wingate when presented with the new information this week. "I'm not sure exactly why this didn't get disclosed."
Velez did not respond to a request for comment. A Colorado Springs Police Department spokesman, meanwhile, argued that some of the new information actually shows the department's practices to be legitimate, and that other information, dating back 10 years or more, doesn't necessarily reflect current practices.
"If you're talking things that are 10, 20 years ago, they're not relevant to today," said the spokesman, Lt. Skip Arms.
The Colorado ACLU sued the city of Denver last year after discovering that Denver police had spied on political activists for years and were keeping files on thousands of individuals and groups -- ranging from the Libertarian Party to Catholic nuns -- most of whom had done nothing more than exercise their right to free speech.
Last November, the Independent revealed that Colorado Springs police had contributed to Denver's "spy files" on several occasions. In one instance, in 1999, Springs cops wrote down the license-plate numbers of people attending a peace rally at Peterson Air Force Base and sent the information to Denver. [The Nov. 21, 2002, article and follow-up coverage can be read online at www.csindy.com.]
Denver's City Council has condemned the practice of spying on peaceful political activists, and the city's police department has agreed to change its intelligence-gathering policies. The city is now in the process of settling the ACLU lawsuit.
In Colorado Springs, on the other hand, the City Council merely requested that Chief Velez give a briefing on intelligence-gathering practices. In that presentation, and in other public statements, Velez and other police officials said that while they might gather intelligence on certain activists suspected of crimes, they don't routinely keep tabs on political groups.
However, records from the ACLU lawsuit show that spying on activists has been a regular, long-standing practice of the Colorado Springs Police Department.
The files show that Springs police passed along activists' license-plate numbers to Denver police not just in 1999, but also following a peace demonstration in the Springs as far back as 1984, and as recently as June of last year, in connection with an environmental rally outside The Broadmoor hotel.
Furthermore, evidence seems to suggest that information gathered at The Broadmoor was shared with an FBI anti-terrorism task force. A fax cover sheet indicates that the information was intended for a Denver police officer named Fisher. Denver police intelligence officer Tom Fisher is assigned full-time to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Another document shows that Colorado Springs police also participated in a little-known law-enforcement operation called the Multi-Agency Group Intelligence Conference, or MAGIC.
A 1993 memo reveals that MAGIC had been meeting bimonthly since 1987 for the purpose of "sharing information on extremist groups" -- a broadly defined term that included white supremacists, animal-rights activists, "outlaw motorcycle gangs," the American Indian Movement, "environmentalists" and "leftist" organizations. Some two dozen Colorado law-enforcement agencies appear to have been among MAGIC's members.
Cops keep mum
Neither Fisher, of the FBI's anti-terror task force, nor the FBI's spokeswoman, Ann Atanasio, responded to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Denver police, Lt. Rhonda Jones, said she didn't know why police might have passed information about the rally at The Broadmoor to the FBI.
"Since I wasn't involved in all that, I can't really answer that question, and I'm not really sure who could," Jones said.
Arms, the Colorado Springs Police Department spokesman, referred questions regarding cooperation with the FBI to Cmdr. Kurt Pillard, head of the department's intelligence unit. However, Pillard did not respond to requests for comment.
Arms said the information regarding last year's protest at The Broadmoor supports the assertion that police only gather intelligence when criminal activity is suspected. The police department had advance intelligence showing that people coming to the rally had engaged in past criminal activity, Arms maintained. During the rally itself, three activists were arrested for hanging a protest banner from a window at the hotel.
"That definitely not only justifies, but shows the importance of intelligence-gathering for those kind of organizations, to prevent their ability to engage in criminal behavior during their rallies," Arms said.
Changing over time
Arms also confirmed that the Colorado Springs Police Department is still a member of MAGIC. Asked, however, whether the group still monitors political organizations, Arms would only say that its stated purpose is "to gather criminal-intelligence information."
Asked why Velez didn't mention the group in his City Council presentation, Arms said, "I honestly don't know. My guess is that if he made reference to information-sharing and things like that, that would be inclusive of any groups that we belong to."
The 1984 incident and the 1993 memo describing MAGIC's purpose at the time are no longer relevant, Arms argued, because police practices change over time.
Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera, who has been uncritical of the police department's intelligence-gathering in the past, did not respond to requests for comment on this story. Vice Mayor Richard Skorman, meanwhile, said he'd like to know more about the new revelations.
"This is new, and we should certainly understand what it means," said Skorman, one of the Council members who requested Velez's original presentation. "I would like to ask more questions."
-- Terje Langeland