Intelligence database worrying

R.G. Ratcliffe

After a commercial airline pilot testified before a government agency against the construction of a nuclear power plant, the Department of Public Safety intelligence division investigated him as a potential terrorist who might fly his passenger-loaded airplane into such a plant.

The First Unitarian Church of Dallas hosted talks by a gay-rights group and was labeled by DPS intelligence as the “sponsor of radical-left groups.”

The manager of a West Texas Chamber of Commerce announced that he would challenge the House Appropriations Committee chairman’s re-election. The man immediately lost his job, and the DPS created a dossier on him and his wife that was circulated at the Capitol.

The DPS at the time was building a massive intelligence computer database on Texas residents that would be shared among law enforcement agencies. Then-Gov. Dolph Briscoe put a halt to it, saying it appeared to lack safeguards against an invasion of privacy.

All of that occurred in 1974 and embarrassed the DPS nationally. The agency destroyed the intelligence files and apologized to the Dallas church. But now the scandal is all but forgotten, and some civil libertarians fear that it could be repeated.

In the current world of terrorist threats, the Legislature this year expanded police surveillance powers and declined to put tighter controls on an intelligence computer database being built at the insistence of Gov. Rick Perry’s office.

Political aspect

Two-thirds of the House voted to remove management of the computer from Perry’s staff and give it entirely to DPS, but the measure was not part of the final border security law, Senate Bill 11, signed by the governor. Civil libertarians remain concerned that the database will be misused in the future, particularly if managed by a political office such as a governor’s.

“I do not take lightly the issue of backpack nuclear bombs. So we need to do a better job,” said state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, an opponent of the new database. “But the over-reach we’re seeing here is phenomenal.”

Perry’s director of homeland security, Steve McCraw – the driving force behind the Texas Data Exchange (TDEx) computer – declined to be interviewed.

Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said the computer is meant to be nothing more than a centralized system to allow law enforcement agencies across Texas to share data that already is being kept by individual police and sheriff’s departments.

“It really is just a fundamental 9-11 Commission finding that law enforcement needs to share information at the state and local level and federal level. This allows that information sharing,” Cesinger said.

The computer is located at DPS but is managed by personnel under McCraw in the governor’s division of emergency management. The database is kept by a private company, Apriss Inc., on a computer in Kentucky.

“We continue to be deeply concerned about the governor’s office having a hand in TDEx and the database being outside the state of Texas,” said Rebecca Bernhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

Looking at the past

Rep. Burnam said he was a legislative aide at the Capitol in the 1970s when the DPS intelligence scandal broke. He said there is no reason to believe at the moment that intelligence data is being misused but that it is something that should concern people.

Burnam said opponents to Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor toll road system could find themselves under investigation like the airline pilot who was seen as a potential terrorist because of his political activity.

Former state Sen. A.R. “Babe” Schwartz, D-Galveston, led the investigation into DPS intelligence gathering. In a recent interview, Schwartz said the pilot’s case was far from the only one.

“They have a vast repertoire of records on citizens,” Schwartz said. “They collected pure hearsay. They collected accounts from people who wanted to defame other people.”

One of the dossiers kept by DPS was on a former three-term Texas House member from Houston, Curtis Graves. The information was gathered from anonymous sources and included a list of people he sang with while drinking in a Houston tavern.

At the time of the scandal, DPS was preparing to build an interagency computer file on Texas residents. Briscoe said he was afraid it would contain noncriminal material that should not be housed in a database without residents’ consent.

“Where it’s necessary to get the consent of anyone involved, and I think that’s proper, I rather doubt it’s practical,” Briscoe said.

Needed tool

The Congressional Research Service earlier this summer prepared a report to Congress on anti-terrorism efforts at state law enforcement “fusion centers,” including the one run by DPS. A focus of the report was on computer systems such as TDEx used by the fusion centers to connect the dots in criminal activity.

The report said such computers represent “state police intelligence units on steroids” and said they take a more “proactive approach to law enforcement.” It noted a variety of terrorist plots that had been foiled by interagency cooperation.

But the report also said protecting civil liberties may be a major problem with such intelligence gathering. It quoted National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell as saying, “The intelligence community has an obligation to better identify and counter threats to Americans while still safeguarding their privacy. The task is inherently a difficult one.”

Cesinger, Perry’s spokeswoman, said the governor is not concerned about potential misuse of the state databases because he believes law enforcement will use it properly.

“Our law enforcement officials are reasonable and rational, and collecting information should be seen as a positive thing,” Cesinger said. “Sharing this information will maximize the knowledge of our law enforcement officers who are trying to protect public safety.”