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In Denver, Colorado, a little shop called the Human Bean has long served as a gathering place for left-wing political activists. A coffee roaster churns away in the back.
Steve Nash is a regular here. He works in construction, installing windows and glass. Nash and his wife, Vicky, led the creation of a police watchdog group called End the Politics of Cruelty.
"Well, actually, we were all a group of activists with the local chapter of Amnesty International who wanted to focus more on local issues here in Denver," says Nash.
End the Politics of Cruelty used to hold its monthly meetings at the Human Bean. In February of 2002, someone dropped off a brown envelope at the cafe with Nash's name on it.
"It was like this computer printout that said it was a police file," says Nash. "And, it had my name at the top. And right about three lines under it, it said I belonged to a criminal extremist group called End the Politics of Cruelty. That's how I learned that the police were actually keeping files on my political activities."
Someone had also leaked police files to the American Civil Liberties Union. Within days, the Denver "Spyfiles" case was born. The mayor admitted that a police intelligence unit originally created in the early 1950s had snooped on more than 3,000 Denver citizens and 200 groups. In recent years, the unit had wrongly labeled an array of groups and individuals "criminal extremist." These included the American Indian Movement and the pacifist American Friends Service Committee - the Quakers.
Steve and Vicky Nash outside a federal court during what became know as the Denver "spyfiles" case.
(Photo by Karl Gehring, Courtest Denver Post)
"There are a lot of things about what went on with the Spyfiles that are disturbing to all of us," says Cole Finegan who took over as city attorney after the Spyfiles scandal broke. "And I certainly think that a number of these people felt appropriately that their personal liberties were violated."
The Denver police appeared tone-deaf to the Bill of Rights, but technology compounded their mistakes dramatically. For decades, the intelligence unit kept its files on index cards. In 2000 the unit decided to go digital. It bought an intelligence software program from yet another technology outfit that few people know about: Orion Scientific, a company run by former defense and intelligence officials.
Orion offers training for its software, but at a price. The Denver police declined to buy sufficient training. The "criminal extremist" label wrongly given to some political groups was a feature of the Orion software. Steve Nash's wife, Vicky Nash, also had a police file.
"The program they were using," says Vicky Nash, "had a pop-up menu that had this list on it, and apparently 'criminal extremist' was near the top. ... And we were told that some clerk just kept hitting the ENTER key, and one after the other person, organization, was classified as a criminal extremist."
In settling a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, Denver officials agreed to stop keeping files on lawful political expression. But thanks to the easy sharing of computer records, the inaccurate data may have gone well beyond Denver.
Kerry Appel owns the Human Bean shop. He's part of a group called the Chiapas Coalition, which advocates for Mayan Indians in southern Mexico.
"I saw in my case," says Appel, "that they were sharing the information about me with the Joint Terrorist Task Force, the FBI, various state and city police departments, and with the Mexican government. ... Where has it gone and what future threats does that hold for me?"
In fact, it's likely to get even easier for police to share information with other agencies. The Justice Department funded a plan to begin wiring together the nation's 700,000 state and local police officers with federal intelligence officials - possibly with help from the Matrix system. Last fall, anxious to move ahead on homeland security, the U.S. Senate mandated that such a computer network be created.
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