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Why the RNC Commission Report’s recommendations aren’t advisable for future big-event planners

One of the notable aspects of President Barack Obama’s inauguration in Washington was that, somehow, without tear gas, tasers or thousands of people dragged off in handcuffs, professional law enforcement was able to provide exceptional public safety in our nation’s capital, even when crowds swelled to almost 2 million people. Those peaceful scenes contrasted sharply with what happened in St. Paul a little over four months before.

For the majority of residents for whom the Republican National Convention (RNC) in St. Paul is but a distant bad memory and who don’t have the time or inclination to wade through the recently released 97-page RNC Commission Report & Executive Summary, there’s little reason to read beyond the first footnote. There, former criminal prosecutors Thomas Heffelfinger and Andrew Luger lay out their response to community members, like me, who asked whether such aggressive “police state” action during the RNC was actually necessary. Their simplistic answer is that it was, but they furnish little by way of proof for that conclusion.  

Apparently, all the prosecutors thought they had to do to justify charging their $130,000 fee was look up the term “anarchist” in their Webster’s to spot a partial reference to violence and note that the word rhymes enough with “terrorist” to stoke fear and hatred sufficient to make us all forget the First Amendment and local officials’ promise to effect a “softer” community-based policing.

The old “us vs. them” byproduct of the “Global War on Terror (GWOT)” gives the report its wedge to divide “good protesters” from bad ones; “real” journalists from those considered activist,  like Amy Goodman; and the law protecting civil liberties from our need for security.  What this propagandistic device doesn’t do, however, is help maintain Americans’ security at such public events while permitting (and encouraging) the exercise of First Amendment rights.

Three overarching problems, although somewhat counterintuitive to the average person (and possibly even to the report drafters), stand out. Notwithstanding their emphasis by former President Bush in waging his GWOT, law-enforcement professionals have widely come to recognize the ineffectiveness of profiling (including data-mining and “link analysis” based on such profiles) and of harsh “shock and awe” tactics.

Profiling doesn’t work
For starters, terrorist attacks on public gatherings in the United States have been extremely rare and are almost always perpetrated by secretive loners — like Eric Rudolph, the Unabomber or the Fort Detrick anthrax killer or twosomes like McVeigh-Nichols (who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City) or the Washington-area sniper duo — not by protest groups.

Equating the entire philosophy of “anarchism,” in all its varied permutations and interpretations, as a prime indicator of terrorism is totally absurd given that, “there is no single defining position that all anarchists hold,” according to The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. To say then that such a profile dilutes and distracts from focusing on true threats is quite an understatement.
The report’s clarification that it’s the “sophisticated, organized and tenacious activists” who are the problem and its “regrets to any non-violent anarchists” (for unnecessarily including them in the stereotype) do little to help law enforcement draw meaningful distinctions.  Basically such characterizations are overly broad and under-inclusive at the same time and, as such, are little different from the old racial profiling tactics widely used until recently by various police agencies throughout the country in making their highway drug stops. (Not until University of Pittsburgh professor of law David A. Harris conducted research showing that most racially profiled highway stops did not yield illegal drugs but that use of the stereotype was, on the contrary, allowing more drug traffickers to escape detection, did most authorities drop use of the drug-trafficking profiles).

Speaking of under-inclusiveness and terror threats, what happened to Al Qaeda and all the other terror groups not even mentioned by Heffelfinger-Luger?

Data-mining and link analysis also don’t work
Even worse than the counterproductiveness of singling out and elevating the taunts and “cat and mouse” games of “anarchists” among all potential acts of violence that have occurred and could in the future happen at a National Security Special Event, the Heffelfinger-Luger report omitted to explain that authorities went one step further and built on the profile by data-mining and creating “Social Network Analysis (SNA)” charts from data gathered from the public websites of the 100-some some other peace and social-justice groups that were participating in events surrounding the RNC. A document has recently come to light showing that “Power Centrality Rankings” and “betweenness” forms of “link analysis” were applied to Troops Out Now, Women Against Military Madness, Protest RNC 2008, the Anti-War Committee and other organizations, and then all of these peace groups were graphed out on the Department of Homeland Security’s “SNA” Chart to link them into “the pattern of most terror networks.”

One of the FBI’s top former counterterrorism undercover agents and author of the post 9-11 book “Thinking Like a Terrorist” agreed that such “link analysis” is nothing but smoke and mirrors.

Former agent Mike German’s exact quote (who now works for the ACLU in Washington) was: “It’s just nonsense that plays into law enforcement fears that causes an increase in ‘defensive’ mobilization that is then directed at innocent persons who look like what the police perceive to be ‘fringe’ elements.”  Luckily, just one month after the RNC, a report was published by the National Academies of Science (ironically per a Department of Homeland Security request) that concluded that data mining for terrorists is an exercise in futility because it would create too many false positives and would implicate the rights of too many innocent people.

Harsh, repressive police tactics don’t work
Finally the report seems to fall into the trap of condoning harsh, repressive police tactics, including preemptive raids and detentions, as well as the liberal use of chemical weapons and effecting of mass arrests by militarized police as effective in preventing or reducing violence during the RNC.

There is a natural tendency to misjudge the deterrent value of this kind of “shock and awe” because it provides an illusion of control to those wishing to preserve order. In fact, it is very easy to intimidate and deter J.Q. Peaceful Public from venturing onto the street. The talk of “stinky anarchists,” “mowing down” protesters and police tasers begun by right-wing media in earnest several months before the RNC did, in fact, reduce participation in the peace and social-justice marches, cutting the number at least in half who were expected to participate.

It’s far less clear what deterrent effect this kind of intimidation would have upon an actual determined terrorist. Harsh tactics also carry the danger of ratcheting up tensions and provoking otherwise peaceful people to violence. It’s well known that unnecessary and indiscriminate violence in war situations “squares the error” in radicalizing and producing more “enemy.” In a similar way, shockingly violent actions and wrongful brutality on the part of police not only can radicalize some people but also break down the public trust necessary for effective community policing and accurate intelligence-gathering. Harsh repression, in other words, intimidates otherwise “good citizens” from exercising their rights and can “breed contempt” for the law.

These criticisms of the RNC Commission Report should not be interpreted as minimizing the difficulty of police officers and officials trying to do their jobs to prevent violence, stop property damage and maintain public safety during large gatherings, especially in the midst of widespread citizen opposition these last few years to government policies.  But good and bad models exist. Instead of promoting the over-broad, under-inclusive profiling, data-mining and linking, and harsher police tactics that were employed at the RNC in St. Paul and which serve to blur dissent with terrorism, it would be better for future “National Security Special Event” planners to study and follow the better model. Hopefully, with the far more professional D.C. policing exercise as a guide, the repressive “police state” methods seen in St. Paul, will not be repeated no matter how many Orwellian-type reports are commissioned by the city to whitewash the actions of its agents.

No trade-offs between civil liberties and security
Perhaps the worst mistake made in the RNC Commission Report is falling for the notion of trade-offs between security and liberty instead of seeing them as intertwined.  President Obama phrased it well in his inaugural speech statement, when he said “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals”.

Obama’s peaceful inauguration constituted the proof of his statement and the proof that policing doesn’t have to be the way it was during the RNC in St. Paul.

Coleen Rowley, who retired in 2004 from a 24-year FBI career, is a frequent speaker on issues relating to ethical decision-making and the need to balance national security and civil liberties. In 2002 she brought to light several pre-9/11 intelligence lapses. In 2006 she made an unsuccessful bid for Congress, challenging Rep. John Kline in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified law professor David A. Harris.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Jeff Kline on 02/20/2009 - 04:38 pm.

    Ok; Reading this article seems rubbish to me. I sense that she is rather biased about the subject and is probably anti-RNC. I don’t think she supports the aspirations of the kids charged with potentially firebombing something, but I do detect support of this march in general.

    Having friends in law enforcement, and having seen some of this “parade” myself, I think it was handled well and the officers dealt with the perpetrators in like manor and as was dictated by the perpetrator actions. There even was several camera shots by news media showing protesters deliberately attacking officers who were dealing with other issues. Like the cowards they are, they come and strike the officer from behind. Did you also notice how they were hiding their faces like terrorists do???!!!

    This article’s context to me seems slighted and biased. I commend the officers who were present and that they had to do; and it was a very good job given what they were up against. As a side; I come from California, and can remember some “parades” back in the 60’s that dwarfed this. Just my humble opinion.

  2. Submitted by Michael Friedman on 02/20/2009 - 04:46 pm.

    A fabulous analysis!
    A more minor criticsm of the commission report is how often it whitewashes police actions on the predicate that: “Police acquired information that …”
    In those instances the information appears to have been false, and there is no outing of how that false information came into the hands of police (presumably meaning St. Paul’s as it was city government that requested the report)and whether deliberate disinformation from the secret service or Sheriff’s office played a hand.

  3. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/20/2009 - 11:23 pm.

    I never did hear a final figure on the number of protesters at the inauguration which might be important to the discussion. If the same groups were present there as at the RNC there might be a good apples-to-apples comparison. As it was, I don’t remember any photos of anti-war protesters or anarchist groups along the parade route, but maybe the feds grabbed the cameras and destroyed the evidence. The security at the Super Bowl also did an outstanding job from an outsider’s viewpoint, maybe the methods used there should be published too.

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 02/22/2009 - 08:08 am.

    It can’t happen here.

    An overkill of black-clad Ninja Turtles looking like a movie set for a replay scripted from Europe, 1930’s.

    A gulag for dissenters.

    Citizens right of public assembly threatened.

    A gulag for dissenters.

    Peaceful protestors being chased down streets and over bridges in nice St Paul, Minnesota by excessive force and forces.

    A gulag for dissenters.

    This was the week that took the ‘saint’ out of St Paul.

    It did happen here.

    Thank you Coleen Rowley for stating the facts so well.

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