The San Diego City Council voted Monday to take a major step toward protecting the region from terrorists who might seek to target America and her finest city. But some civil liberties advocates are wondering if by doing so city leaders opened the city gates to a Trojan horse containing a more pertinent homegrown threat.
The City Council voted 7-2 with little discussion and even less fanfare to approve the establishment of the San Diego Regional Terrorism Threat Assessment Center. But before the vote, several council members voiced concerns about how the center would affect the civil liberties of San Diegans and influence the policies of the San Diego Police Department.
The counterterrorism ruckus started last Wednesday when police Lt. Chris Ball asked the City Council's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee for permission to apply for federal funding for the center, a plan that on its face seemed simple. Representatives from a variety of local, state and federal law enforcement groups would come together under one roof in an unprecedented effort to share information and compare notes in the hope of ferreting out terrorist plots before they blossom.
The police department would apply for a $2 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security that would establish the center. Additional funds would follow.
According to a report prepared by the city manager's office, the grant would "facilitate information sharing" between the San Diego/Imperial County Narcotics Information Network, California Southwest Border Intelligence Group, SDPD, the San Diego Sheriff, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, as well as other anti-terrorism organizations. The center would "focus on terrorism and homeland security issues with an anticipated nexus to drug trafficking...." Along these lines, the center would bring other drug-enforcement groups into the mix, including the National Marijuana Public Lands and Clandestine Lab Enforcement Group and several major High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task forces.
Approval of the center looked like a rubber-stamp job until Councilmember Toni Atkins started asking questions. "It just seemed like we were applying for money for homeland security," she said. "But once the report started... it just sort of begged the question of what are we really approving here."
Atkins' curiosity quickly evolved into a question about how the center would affect the San Diego Police Department's enforcement of the city's policies on medical marijuana.
"I thought, what do all of these agencies"-such as the National Marijuana Public Lands and Clandestine Lab Enforcement Group and the San Diego/Imperial County Narcotics Information Network-"have to do with terrorism?" she said.
"I became pretty uncomfortable when it kind of felt to me like this is overreaching, far-reaching, in terms of what they are setting up and the types of groups that would participate in the center," she said.
By the time Atkins was finished, she had Councilmember Michael Zucchet spooked.
Zucchet followed up Atkins' line of questioning but said the answers he received only added to his confusion and sense that something was amiss.
Lt. Ball assured the committee that the police department wouldn't share information pertaining to medicinal marijuana patients, and Rich Gorman, director of the California Border Alliance Group, which will administer the grant, said a strong link between drugs and terrorism had been established long ago. Methamphetamine sales, identity theft and money laundering were cited as examples of crimes related to terrorism.
"The general point that [Gorman] was trying to make was that terrorists have to be funded by some sort of criminal activity, so sometimes car thieves or meth dealers could be funding terrorism," Zucchet said later with a laugh. "You have got to look under what appear to be common crimes to make sure they aren't connected to terrorism. It was the spirit of those remarks is what made me uneasy."
During the meeting, Zucchet said the officers' response to Atkins "scared the hell out of me."
In the end, both Zucchet and Atkins said they were left with questions about the proposed center's affect on medical marijuana, privacy issues and civil liberties and the links between terrorism and seemingly ordinary crime. But the committee, which also includes Councilmembers Donna Frye, Brian Maienschein and Charles Lewis, voted unanimously to endorse the grant proposal and send it on to the full City Council. Both Atkins and Zucchet said they figured they had a few weeks to poke around.
So they were caught off guard Friday afternoon when they learned that the matter had found its way onto the agenda for Monday's City Council meeting. Their surprise was matched by the concerns of civil liberties advocates who questioned whether the terrorism center would allow U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and the federal government greater access to private information and less protection for civil rights.
"What got my attention immediately was the direct linkage of the DEA and other drug-enforcement bodies with this terrorism task force," said Dale Kelly Bankhead of the San Diego chapter of the ACLU. "I think there has been a lot of cross pollination all along, so I don't know that this changes a lot, but it is certainly true that... the more draconian surveillance and search and seizure provisions of the Patriot Act have also been used for other federal crimes-mostly drug related."
Proponents of the center said those concerns are way off the mark. "It's well established that there is a drug nexus [with] terrorism," said Gorman. "Narco-terrorism is one of the terms that has been out there and established and documented for years. We're not talking about medicinal marijuana here; we are talking about major trafficking organizations and the funds and means that they are using to ship and distribute drugs and using those monies in some cases to fund terrorist activities."
But it's this type of logic that has critics wondering if the center could be used to link small-time drug offenders to terrorist plots. As an example, they point to television ads run by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy that feature messages like, "Drug money supports terror. If you buy drugs you might, too," in an attempt to link teenage drug use with acts of terrorism. And even high-ranking police officials acknowledged that making the leap from association to prosecution isn't all that far-fetched in an age of "voluntary" interviews and questionable detainments.
Attempting to assuage fears and answer questions about the center, Police Chief William Lansdowne appeared before the City Council Monday.
What ensued was a vague line of inquiry from Atkins, followed by testimony from Lansdowne about the role the center would play in coordinating undercover investigations and increasing officer safety. Zucchet held his tongue.
Despite the apparent disconnect, the chief insists that he understands Atkins' concerns. "If you give law enforcement too much power, they will abuse it and people are afraid that may occur again," he said. "But I can tell you from the local perspective at the San Diego Police Department, we have clear guidelines and we are going to follow them to the letter. We are going to get the search warrants and bring the courts into the system and we can't operate using the tools that the federal government does but I can't prevent them from doing what they do."
Apparently confused as ever, Zucchet and Atkins stood their ground, voting against the proposal, as their colleagues gave the police permission to push ahead with the plan.
Were the other City Council members simply reluctant to deny a public safety request, or were they steamrolled by a fear-fueled anti-terrorism juggernaut masking a hidden agenda? Will the center be the hidden door through which Ashcroft and federal agents descend on San Diego and spirit away car thieves and potheads on charges of aiding terrorism?
For now, the City Council is putting its faith in the city's top cop to make sure that doesn't happen.