The Secret Watchers
- Ben Jacklet
- Portland Tribune - News
How the police bureau spied for decades on the people of Portland
Portland police terrorism expert Winfield Falk hated that his life's work was sentenced to die in the shredder.
So he drove to police headquarters in downtown Portland, loaded his truck with confidential Ñ and by then illegal Ñ intelligence documents, and took them home.
The theft was never officially reported.
The files Ñ 36 boxes stuffed with surveillance photographs, index cards, news clippings and intelligence reports collected between 1965 and the early 1980s Ñ spent the next several years in the garage of Falk's Southwest Portland home, where he painstakingly continued to add to them.
After he died in 1987, the files ended up in a remote, disintegrating barn. They sat there, unguarded and gathering mold, spiders and mice, for a decade and a half.
Portland Tribune columnist Phil Stanford obtained the files recently through a source the Tribune has agreed not to name. The tattered contents of the 851 manila folders provide a rare window into the world of police surveillance.
The files reveal that, in addition to monitoring groups engaged in criminal actions, the police kept watch over a broad range of harmless political and civic organizations. Intelligence officers built files on the People's Food Store co-op, the Northwest Oregon Voter Registration Project and the Women's Rights Coalition Ñ even the Bicycle Repair Collective, a city program offering a $24 course on how to fix flat tires and adjust brakes.
The files obtained by the Tribune focus on organizations, not individual Portlanders. But in the files appear the names of at least 3,000 people from 576 organizations. The names are presented in formal intelligence reports, appear on lists of participants in meetings and groups, are highlighted on posters that advertise events and are underlined in newspaper clippings.
Along with militants and activists are hundreds of regular citizens who were included simply for practicing everyday democracy Ñ writing letters, signing petitions, joining organizations and attending lectures or school board meetings.
'The shame about all these spies is, they didn't need to go and collect all of that information,' says Bonnie Tinker, whose efforts 25 years ago to set up a shelter for abused women and a rape hot line were characterized as the work of a Marxist terrorist developing safe houses and covert communications networks. 'I would have told them É what we were doing.'
Some of Portland's most prominent citizens are named in the files, including former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, former city Commissioner Mike Lindberg and recent gubernatorial candidate Beverly Stein. The files contain a 1968 photograph of Vera Katz showing support for a grape boycott, although the future Portland mayor is identified as 'Linda Katz.'
Police chiefs from the time say they didn't know the files existed. Current police officials say today's intelligence officers abide by laws that prohibit them from spying on people or groups that aren't involved in criminal activities. Mayor Katz says the police would have 'hell to pay' if they broke those rules now.
But the spy files provide a cautionary tale in today's post-Sept. 11 world. They show how intelligence gatherers can be seduced by their own political convictions. They show how watching one group leads to watching another, and then another. And they show how easy it is for secret files to take on a life of their own.
'People think surveillance will only be used against the bad people, but it never works like that,' says Ron Herndon, a longtime activist in Portland's black community who was spied on for years. 'When you give law enforcement the unfettered authority to snoop into people's lives in the name of national security, it will be abused.'
Harl Haas, who served as Multnomah County district attorney from 1973 to 1980, was not surprised to learn that the files still exist, or that he shows up in them.
Police surveillance 'has always been a problem,' he says. 'The files are private, so who knows what's in them? They get control of it, and they keep control of it.'
The Tribune's review of Portland's secret files found:
• The bureau's Intelligence Division built files on law-abiding groups for at least six years in violation of the bureau's public statements and its own policies.
• At least one intelligence officer, Falk, continued building files for four years after a 1981 state law prohibited such work.
• The intelligence reports used to justify close surveillance often were inaccurate and clearly biased, implicating people as 'militants' or even 'terrorists' based on their political beliefs, with little or no supporting evidence.
• Police officers spent long hours watching the homes of political activists who never were involved in criminal activities. They also monitored rallies, school board meetings and lectures, often recording the vehicle license plate number of attendees.
• And when Falk made a truckload of secret intelligence documents disappear, his actions went unpunished. He took home legitimate files on groups involved in breaking the law as well as ones on noncriminal groups. The Tribune was unable to find any sign that officials tried to figure out what happened to them.
Conspiracies and curiosities
The files are arranged in alphabetic order.
A is for America Ñ as in American Indian Movement, American Civil Liberties Union, American Friends Service Committee.
B is for Black: Black Panthers, Black United Front, Black Muslims.
C is for Communists.
Some of the folders consist of little more than a news clipping with names underlined in red marker and checked off in pen.
Others contain dozens of intelligence reports and confidential memos warning of armed insurrections and conspiracies.
Within the mountains of mold-stained, yellowing papers are investigations into the bombings of two draft-recruitment centers and Portland City Hall.
The intelligence unit's work helped authorities prosecute four would-be revolutionaries for bombing the recruitment centers. No arrests were made in the bombing of City Hall, which damaged the building and destroyed a replica of the Liberty Bell.
Melvin Hulett, the head of the police's Intelligence Division in the early 1970s, now retired and living in Portland, says surveillance of political groups was justified because many radicals at that time were involved in robbing banks, stealing explosives and committing other dangerous crimes.
They 'were up to no good; that's why we were after them,' Hulett says.
Annette Jolin served in the Portland intelligence unit in the 1970s and today is chairwoman of the Division of Administration of Justice at Portland State University.
'There wasn't a whole lot of doubt that there were people willing to use violence to further their causes or further their visibility,' she says. The unit's extensive surveillance was needed, she says, because 'we just didn't want anything to get out of hand.'
Still, for all the insinuated threats in the enormous volumes of material compiled, much of the information gathered so carefully for so long barely passes the straight-face test.
Wedged between fat folders on militant groups such as the White Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society are files on the Sisters of the Road Cafe and the Children's Club, a day-care center for low-income children that was located on Southeast Clinton Street.
Critics say there are big problems with casting a net so widely.
'Making people paranoid results in exactly the type of thing law enforcement wants to thwart,' says Dennis Stovall, who now teaches book publishing at Portland State University and is in the files because he was active in opposing the war in Vietnam. 'It pushes people into actions that are illegal.'
Filed but not forgotten
During the turbulent 1960s and '70s, there were no Oregon laws or city ordinances that related specifically to intelligence gathering by a police department.
The half-dozen or so intelligence officers who watched political groups worked from a list of parameters composed in 1970 that was more concerned with how to gather information than how to protect civil rights. That changed after the police were criticized for keeping a file on the American Civil Liberties Union.
In a highly publicized gesture, Lt. James Davis, then head of the Intelligence Division, turned over the ACLU file to the organization's Portland leader, Stevie Remington, in April 1975 with the promise that the remainder of the file would be shredded and then closed. The ACLU auctioned off its file at a charity fund-raiser.
But the police did not give the ACLU its whole file. The secret files show that the police continued to gather information on the ACLU and other law-abiding political groups for another decade.
The post-1975 spying on noncriminal activities was in direct contradiction to the written policies and procedures of the intelligence unit under then-Mayor Neil Goldschmidt and Police Chief Bruce Baker.
Those policies ordered that only information that was 'directly and immediately related to (the) police mission' would be collected and kept. Additionally, the policy stated that 'the political or religious beliefs or preferences of an individual, group, or organization are not of concern to the Police Bureau.'
Similar policies became state law in 1981 with the passage of Oregon Statute 181.575. That law bars police from gathering or keeping information about the political, religious or social views of any individual or group unless the information directly relates to an investigation of criminal activities.
But Falk, at least, violated this law. The Tribune was unable to determine whether he did this with his superiors' approval because so many people from that time have died, can't remember or couldn't be found.
But the files show that information was added after 1981 to files on such organizations as the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Coalition of Greater Portland, the Portland Central American Solidarity Committee, the fledgling Oregon Citizens Party, the community organizing group Oregon Fair Share, the McKenzie River Gathering Foundation social-justice organization and the Hispanic Political Action Committee.
Some of Falk's post-1981 reports were directed to superior officers, indicating that at least some officers knew about his activities.
Labels without a cause
The biases of Portland's intelligence officers are evident not only in the wording of their memos and reports but also in the files they chose to build, such as 'Blacks Ð Misc.,' 'Arabs Ð Misc.' and 'Women Ð Misc.'
One of the strangest folders within the files is labeled 'Terrorism Ð General.' Its contents show that the intelligence unit spent more time investigating people who practiced leftist politics than uncovering actual terrorist plots.
Denise Jacobson, a married mother of three who studied at Portland State University in the late 1960s, was tracked closely.
Jacobson was labeled a terrorist for two reasons: She was opposed to the war in Vietnam as early as 1965, and she was a Communist.
As a result, the Jacobsons' Southwest Portland home was under surveillance in the late 1960s. Undercover officers took and filed photographs of the Jacobsons, their children and their visitors.
Jacobson, who goes by the first name Brooke, now teaches film at PSU. Shown a long list of her friends and colleagues from a police folder marked 'terrorism,' she shakes her head: 'Never, never in a million years would any of these people do anything remotely terroristic. É The most subversive activity I was involved with was making soup. People used to donate vegetables. My husband was the cook. We'd make this huge pot of soup and bring it over to the campus and give it away.'
For Jacobson, the existence of the file awakened old fears.
'There were moments when I feared that at some point they might just decide to round up all the radicals and put them in internment camps,' she says. 'Over the years that particular paranoia has diminished,' although she says it has resurfaced because of the Bush administration's response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bonnie Tinker raised the suspicions of Falk and his colleagues when she helped found the Rape Relief Hotline and Portland's Bradley-Angle House, one of the first shelters for battered women in the United States. Today she is the executive director of the gay-rights organization Love Makes a Family.
Falk insinuated in a 1979 report that Tinker had plans to use domestic violence shelters as 'safe houses' for hiding fugitives and the rape relief hot line as a covert communication system.
'We can expect that these safe houses and this hotline communication network will probably be used for the movement of wanted fugitives in the case of future terrorist acts,' Falk predicted.
Tinker thinks the surveillance and the suspicion it has bred have made it harder for her to win funding for her causes.
She says she supports the police because they are needed to protect people. 'But when the people who are most likely to be the victims of crimes can't trust the police because the police are pursuing a political agenda, then you've lost that support for a safe community,' she says.
Surveillance 'takes its toll'
Portland political activist Lloyd Marbet is portrayed in the files as a dangerous radical who was determined to push his more timid colleagues into using explosives and breaking the law.
An unsigned 1972 report alleges that Marbet's pickup had a German shepherd in the cab and five gas cans, a length of hose and a crate of wine bottles in the bed. The items 'were obviously components of fire bombs,' the report states.
Marbet vigorously denied these allegations when the Tribune showed him reports that mentioned him. For one thing, he says, the reports were never verified. He never owned a German shepherd, but rather a midsize mutt. And he says he never toted ingredients for Molotov cocktails.
True, he says, he used to carry a gas can in the back of his truck, because he often traveled to the mountains and wanted to avoid running out of gas. But he never carried five gas cans, as the report alleges, along with wine bottles and all the other implements for making explosive devices.
'If this is the kind of intelligence work we're paying for, people have a lot to fear,' he says.
The stories told by Jacobson, Tinker and Marbet are echoed by the more than 40 activists, interviewed by the Tribune, who appear in the files. The vast majority of these spy targets went on to lead law-abiding lives as professors, lawyers, aid workers, athletic coaches and state employees.
When asked to reflect on their experiences with police surveillance, they raised concerns about the loss of privacy and free speech, the insinuation of guilt by association, the 'chilling effect' on people's willingness to be involved in causes and the allocation of taxpayer money to dig up reams of information of questionable accuracy.
Some are proud they were watched. They expected and even welcomed surveillance from a government that they were trying to change. Others blamed government surveillance for lost jobs, difficulty in winning support for their causes, and even death threats.
'Economically and financially, they just about destroyed me,' says Kent Ford, who led the now-defunct Portland chapter of the Black Panther Party and today is a weight-training coach at Matt Dishman Community Center in Northeast Portland.
'The constant surveillance, the constant harassment, it takes its toll on you,' Ford says. 'You know these guys are doing this stuff, and it's not aboveboard. And nothing is being done to them.'
The thought police
Within weeks of taking over as the nation's first female police chief in 1985, Penny Harrington got a call from the intelligence section.
It was Falk. He told Harrington that now that she was chief, there were a few things she should know about a pair of left-leaning city commissioners Ñ Mike Lindberg and Margaret Strachan Ñ who were trying to 'take over city government.'
'I just blew up at him,' recalls Harrington, who resigned as chief in June 1986 after 22 years in the bureau. Today she is a law enforcement consultant in Morro Bay, Calif.
In an attempt to break up what she refers to as a 'cadre,' Harrington reorganized both the intelligence and vice units with new officers. She says she thinks her attempt to reform the intelligence and vice sections cost her a job and nearly her career.
'They were after me,' she says. 'I was up to my ears in alligators.'
There is no direct evidence in the files that intelligence officers tried to affect the Portland political process. But there are hints.
One 1972 report describes a fund-raising event for Multnomah County District Attorney Harl Haas. The report reels off a long list of people attending the event with alleged links to criminal activity. Wedged in the middle of that list, along with an auxiliary police captain 'who is known to associate and play with the gay crowd' and a man identified as 'the pin ball king,' are the names of Mayor-elect Neil Goldschmidt and his aide Ron Buel, who would go on to found the Willamette Week newspaper.
'Haas noted our appearance and seemed to be very nervous,' the officers wrote.
Haas' reaction today to his appearance in the file? Bemusement: 'They were collecting information on elected officials they dealt with for very little purpose.'
Katz and Goldschmidt both appeared at several points in the intelligence files before winning the mayor's office Ñ Katz for her involvement in a boycott of grapes in support of farmworkers and Goldschmidt for his opposition to the Vietnam War.
'I was certainly aware they were watching us at the time, taking our pictures,' Katz says. 'I thought it was a real waste of time.'
Former Multnomah County Commission Chairwoman Beverly Stein also received attention based on her political beliefs. Stein, who today is a leader in the state Democratic Party, identified herself as a socialist early in her career. Her home address is included on what appears to be Falk's list of routine surveillance stops.
Former U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Furse also made the files. When she and some colleagues organized a group called People Preventing War and ran a political ad in The Oregonian in 1983, an intelligence officer cut out the ad and did background checks to build a file on the organization, again in violation of the 1981 law.
Along with all of the memos, reports, news clippings and photos, the files contain reams of background checks on license plate numbers.
Some of the plate numbers were copied down at political demonstrations, lectures and school board meetings, such as a series of controversial school board meetings in 1982 about the desegregation of Portland's public schools.
Back to the Bolsheviks
The intelligence officers assigned to political groups over the years in Portland were furthering a tradition that city leaders long have denied.
The city has funded political spying efforts since the 1920s. That's when private employers worried about an influx of Bolsheviks first joined with patriotic groups such as the American Legion to help form a 'Red Squad' within the city's police force.
Historian Michael Munk, who has studied the old Red Squad files stored at the city archives in North Portland, says that every mayor for the past 80 years has denied the existence of a Red Squad. But history shows some version of political surveillance has always been practiced.
The problem with a Red Squad, Munk and other critics noted, is that it encourages police to shift from protecting the public to pursuing a political agenda.
During the 20-year stretch that the files cover, Portland intelligence officers continued their surveillance during times of extreme volatility and relative tranquility and under the administrations of Mayors Terry Schrunk (1957-1972), Neil Goldschmidt (1973-1979), Frank Ivancie (1980-1984) and Bud Clark (1985-1992).
The officers did so with very little oversight, inside or outside of the bureau. Former Portland mayors, police chiefs, district attorneys and police commissioners contacted by the Tribune say they knew very little about the surveillance.
Goldschmidt says he isn't sure exactly what the Intelligence Division did. 'It never really came up,' he says.
Charles Jordan, who served as police commissioner from 1977 to 1981 and today is director of Portland Parks & Recreation, also says he is unsure of how the intelligence officers operated. 'You always suspect that something like that is possible,' he says of the files obtained by the Tribune, 'but I didn't know anything about it.'
The Tribune recently made a formal request for surveillance files of political organizations and activities from 1960 to 1995 from the Portland Police Bureau. The bureau's custodian of records, Debra Haugen, replied: 'If, by chance, your request is referring to intelligence files of the sort that were kept during the protests of the '60s and '70s, (the) law required that we destroy those many, many years ago.'
An act of defiance
It's unclear exactly when Falk took the secret files from police headquarters. Some sources suggested Falk was authorized to take them after the Oregon Legislature passed the 1981 anti-spying law.
Ron Still, who was police chief at that time, says he knows nothing about Falk taking the files then.
Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk was asked to review the bureau's intelligence files after the 1981 law took effect. He reviewed an index of all files maintained by the bureau and physically inspected a number of randomly selected files. Shown a list of the files obtained by the Tribune, Schrunk said he does not think any of them were on the index or among those he reviewed.
'What I saw were motorcycle gangs, people who harbor fugitives, things like that,' Schrunk says.
Other sources indicated that Falk took the files in 1985 after Harrington became chief.
Harrington says she didn't hear anything about missing files then. But she was not surprised to learn that Falk took home thousands of pages of confidential intelligence documents.
'That was happening all over the country at that time,' she says. 'Files were ending up in people's garages and basements.'
Since then, caches of intelligence files have occasionally surfaced. The Los Angeles Police Department's intelligence unit was disbanded in 1983 after a spy scandal revealed that a detective had taken home confidential files and was entering them into a database overseen by the director of the right-wing John Birch Society.
Falk was a member of the John Birch Society. It's not known whether he sent the group any information from the Portland files.
This week in Denver, 300 people jammed police headquarters to get a glimpse of spy files that an ACLU lawsuit forced the police to release. The files, dating to the 1950s, had been entered into a police computer database in 1999.
Falk, the rogue spy who saved Portland's secret files, was a well-respected intelligence expert and highly regarded by people inside and outside the police bureau.
After years of spying on those who practiced civil disobedience, taking the files home was a gesture full of irony Ñ it was Falk's great act of civil disobedience.
Falk died young, at 53, from a heart attack, on Jan. 28, 1987. He was honored with a well-attended police funeral procession and remembered as a military veteran, a dedicated cop and a respected authority on global terrorism. He was praised by police colleagues, the head of the Secret Service and the head of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, one of the groups he used to spy on.