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State senate: Big Brother was watching
Investigation into National Guard widens; unit may face subpoenas, contempt charges
A probe into a domestic surveillance unit within the California National Guard ballooned Tuesday into a full-blown investigation into widespread allegations of spying on U.S. citizens, misuse of state money and retaliation against Guard troops who brought the allegations to light.
Sen. Joseph Dunn, D-Santa Ana, said after a Capitol hearing that he will order top National Guard officers to testify under oath after they refused to do so voluntarily. He might seek contempt of Legislature charges against those officers because, he said, the state military department has stonewalled his efforts to get documents about a secret unit called the "Information Synchronization, Knowledge, Management and Intelligence Fusion" unit.
That unit collected information on a Mother's Day anti-war protest in front of the state Capitol. Dunn described the unit as the "tip of the iceberg" of domestic spying units within the California National Guard.
California Military Department documents refer to internal agencies such as the Domestic Watch Center, the Combined Intel Fusion Group and a Joint Operations Center, among others.
"We have received a volume of information about domestic surveillance units around California" within the Guard, Dunn said.
In letters to the senator, state military officials reject the allegations and complain his subpoenas are "overly broad" and that many of the sought documents are classified.
"The California Military Department does not have a domestic intelligence program," wrote George O'Connell, a private attorney hired by the Guard.
On July 8, Brig. Gen. John Alexander, acting Adjutant General, wrote: "We were not in any way engaged in surveillance activities during the May 8, 2005, Mother's Day Demonstration of any group," adding, "we took reasonable stepsto monitor media coverage of this upcoming event."
But during questioning Tuesday by Dunn and Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, Lt. Col. Joseph Righello said after long pauses he did not know if the Guard kept files on individual Californians.
Dunn said he is widening his probe to include an investigation of financial improprieties and retaliation. He said the flood of information coming into his office about such activities "is staggering." Dunn said he may seek to establish a special investigative committee to get more authority to delve into the alleged abuses at the Guard.
A key case among many, Dunn said, involves a nonprofit entity known as Gold Rush 2002 Inc., which was set up by top National Guard officers. As reported by The Argus in May, whistle-blowers alleged these officers illegally steered state money into Gold Rush, shook down a Hollywood filmmaker and threatened whistle-blowers with forced retirement and demotions.
Within a month, Maj. Gen. Tom Eres, who commanded the National Guard, retired amid growing scrutiny of his leadership. The Guard said it followed regulations to the letter and stepped in to stop irregularities.
Eres established the Information Synchronization unit.
Although it appears on internal organizational charts and memos, there is
no mention of it on the Military Department's budget. A July 8 letter to
Dunn indicates that $147,000 was earmarked for its director.
The director retired and left the state as Dunn began asking questions about the unit, and his computer hard drive was erased as Dunn demanded it be turned over to his investigators. The Military Department and affidavits it provided say that purging files is customary following retirement, but insiders say it is rare.
Military Department correspondence also notes that the Guard spent $468,000 to staff the state's anti-terrorism center with seven military employees. That center, originally called the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center, was reorganized after The Argus reported in 2003 that it monitored anti-war advocates at a violent Port of Oakland protest. An Argus investigation disclosed that CATIC monitored several activist groups for months in special and daily bulletins.
Military Department documents show the National Guard has been engaged in state intelligence work since at least 2002, only venturing off to create its own, separate intelligence units early this year.
One state intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a senior Guard commander "just decided to go off and create his own homeland-security intel empire."
It remains unclear what rules govern that work, according to Mark Schlosberg, who reviews police policy for the ACLU's Northern California chapter.
"Whatever regulation they have should make it clear that they should not be monitoring people who are engaged in protest activity or other First Amendment-protected activity, unless there is reasonable suspicion of a crime," he said. "Then it is questionable why the National Guard should have a unit when there are other federal, state and local law-enforcement entities who already are doing this work."
But Nathan Barankin, spokesman for California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, said, "That is something we have investigated, and we've concluded that this Fusion Unit is not associated with what was CATIC."
In 2003, in response to The Argus investigation and complaints by the ACLU, Lockyer re-wrote state rules for information-gathering about protest groups. Lockyer ordered that information could only be gathered when there was reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.