Who’s watching you?

Former FBI special agent comes to Chico to raise awareness of counterterrorism activities

Mike German

Mike German

PHOTO Courtesy of mike german

Hear the man:
Former FBI agent Mike German will be speaking on domestic surveillance and counterterrorism at Chico State on Sept. 28, at noon in BMU 210, and at 3:30 p.m. in Selvester’s Café. He’s also speaking at the ACLU Chico Chapter’s annual dinner on Sept. 29 at 6 p.m. at the Chico Women’s Club. The event is free to ACLU members or $20 at the door (to join the ACLU).

“I had reported misconduct and mismanagement of a counterterrorism investigation and was retaliated against—the FBI retaliated against me for reporting the problems internally within the FBI, removing me from the case and preventing me from working undercover on other cases,” offered Mike German, former FBI special agent.

He was speaking of the reason for his resignation from the agency in 2004. “I resigned shortly after reporting it to Congress, because I knew the retaliation was going to be more severe once I reported it outside the FBI.”

German is now senior policy counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying department of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where he specializes in the subjects of domestic surveillance, privacy, data mining, whistleblower protection, and intelligence and law-enforcement oversight.

German, who worked in terrorism for almost a dozen years, is coming to Chico this month to deliver a series of talks on the subject of counterterrorism and domestic surveillance.

“It’s been very clear to me that the approach the FBI was taking [to fight terrorism] was going to be counterproductive,” German said in a recent phone conversation. “Contrary to the rhetoric around these issues that you can balance secrecy and civil liberties, I found that the more I focused on protecting the civil rights of innocent Americans, the more effective I was.”

He spoke of the creation and operation, since 9/11, of nationwide “fusion centers” designed to “improve the sharing of anti-terrorism intelligence among state, local and federal agencies and the private sector,” as the ACLU of Northern California puts it (see http://tinyurl.com/norcalfusion).

“There are a number of intelligence-fusion centers in Northern California,” German said, listing the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center in San Francisco and the Sacramento Regional Terrorism Threat Assessment Center among them. German did not know of the existence of a fusion center in Chico, though Chico was mentioned in a 2010 Washington Post series titled “Top Secret America” as having a satellite FBI office.

“What’s going on in the law-enforcement community—federal, state and local—is there’s been a significant change both in the attitudes and in the architecture that have greatly expanded the amount of information that is being collected about people in the community,” said German. “The attitude is sort of an overzealousness that’s born of real threats.”

Unfortunately, said German, the perceived threat of terrorism post-9/11 has resulted in “a broader targeting of innocent people, from surveillance to collection of their personal information and activities.”

As for an architectural change in the nation’s law-enforcement mechanisms, he said that after 9/11 the line became blurred between such agencies as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and non-law-enforcement entities such as fire departments and hospitals that have been “added on as part of an intelligence apparatus” and are “empowered to collect intelligence for law enforcement.

“Your ordinary, everyday activities could be collected not just by the police [officer] who stops you, but also by the ambulance, the hospital, the person you work for, as suspicious information that requires law-enforcement attention,” he said.

Suspicious-activity-reporting programs conducted by the FBI, the DHS, and state and local law enforcement “generally describe innocuous behaviors as an indication of terrorism,” German added, listing photography, taking notes and taking measurements as some of those activities.

The information can then be “used to construct vast dossiers that can be widely shared with a simple mouse click through new institutions like Joint Terrorism Task Forces, fusion centers, and public-private partnerships,” according to the ACLU.

“The closest one is in Sacramento,” said Chico Police Department Lt. Linda Dye of the location of the nearest fusion center. Dye also serves as a terrorism liaison officer (TLO) commander, overseeing a local TLO program that includes “several officers” who report suspicious information to the Sacramento center.

“The idea is to be able to have information to recognize possible terrorist situations or suspicious circumstances that might be terrorism-related,” she said, adding, “It’s actually expanded beyond terrorism to homeland security in general.”

Dye referred to an incident involving a woman taking photos of the huge petroleum tank farm at the Midway and Hegan Lane. “That’s not right,” she said. “That is critical infrastructure; if someone were to blow that up…”

A TLO got the woman’s license-plate number and followed up. Turns out she was just taking pictures for a class.

As to where the data on this particular incident ends up after it is reported, “that would be a question for the FBI,” said Dye. “If we don’t check on things, we’re not being diligent.”