An officer with the Yale Police Department is responsible for reporting to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, in an arrangement common to many college campuses that has raised concerns from civil liberties groups.
A member of the Yale Police Department is assigned to such a task force, a legal partnership between the FBI and local law enforcement agents. The pairing essentially “deputizes” officers as federal agents so they can work alongside the FBI to investigate suspicious or criminal activity that may further terrorism, New Haven-based FBI spokeswoman Lisa Bull said.
But the task forces have taken heat from the American Civil Liberties Union, which argues that the FBI is using them to spy on various political, environmental and religious groups across the country. Last year, the ACLU filed several Freedom of Information Act requests demanding that the FBI release guidelines governing such pairings, according to a December 2004 ACLU press release.
“We’ve tried to get the FBI to tell us the exact roles of JTTFs on campus,” ACLU Attorney Ben Wizner said. “We are suing for the release of two types of records that should be public.”
The link between the Yale Police Department and the task force was first noted in an article for an upcoming issue of the Nation which is currently on the magazine’s Web site.
Bull said the taks force is not a spy organization. There is a minimum threshold, she said, for opening terrorist cases and there are certain investigative steps permitted by Attorney General guidelines.
“This is not like the 1960s image of the FBI,” Bull said. “We don’t keep files on everybody.”
In 1980, the FBI established the first task forces in response to the significant threat of terrorism in the United States, according to the FBI Web site. They required that all FBI field offices have a task force, which investigates terrorism by combining the forces of law enforcement officers and public safety officials. Currently, there are 36 such partnerships nationwide.
YPD Lt. Michael Patten confirmed the role of a YPD officer in a task force, but said he could not comment further. Deputy University Secretary Martha Highsmith said the purpose of a University Police officer on the local pairing is to protect against terrorist threats and keep campus safe. She said Yale has an open line of communication with the task force.
“We have a number of high hazard labs and we have some high-profile facilities,” she said. “We had the President’s daughter here and we looked carefully into this.”
University Police shared information and evidence about the 2003 explosion in the Yale Law School and Highsmith said the two organizations would collaborate in similar situations. But Highsmith declined to comment on what other activities or crimes have prompted a report to the FBI.
The ACLU has received a court order that requires the FBI to release documents on the policies, methods and funding of the task forces and any files they have on different groups, including antiwar, environmental, labor and human rights groups, Wizner said. The ACLU is not against information sharing in support of law enforcement, he said, but is concerned that there currently is a great deal of pressure to identify potential terrorist threats.
“We’re worried that overzealous law enforcement will sweep in the usual suspect and this person will end up in an FBI file,” he said. “The FBI has a troubled history.”
The ACLU has cited evidence on their Web site accusing the FBI of using the task forces to spy and interrogate both residents and college students in several states, including Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.
Although the ACLU is still waiting for documents that will detail the guidelines that govern partnership members, Wizner specifically questioned which institution’s guidelines a legally deputized officer would follow — those from the task force or those from their main employer. Highsmith said the YPD officer is a Yale employee and therefore is only on loan to the FBI. He therefore must follow YPD guidelines regardless of which organization he is serving, she said.
Wizner said task force members questioned individuals involved in planned protest activity surrounding the Democratic National Convention in Boston last summer. In the Nation article, journalist John S. Friedman reports that a student and two former students at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., who planned to attend the Democratic convention were questioned and placed under FBI surveillance for almost a week, but were never charged with a crime.
The University maintains that the Yale officer affiliated with a task force has only a positive effect on campus.
“It’s not a secret and we haven’t treated it as a secretive thing,” Highsmith said. “The Nation was speculating as to whether this was one more way to spy on people on campus, but that is not our role in this at all. Our role is to protect Yale community.”
Nick Seaver ’07, the president of the Yale chapter of the ACLU, said his group has had no problems with the partnership in his time at Yale.
“It comes down to whether they are still respecting civil liberties of students in their quest to make our campus secure,” he said.