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Sat Sep 14 12:25:10 MDT 2002
The Secret Watchers
How the police bureau spied for decades on the people of Portland
BY BEN JACKLET
The Portland Tribune (OR), Friday the 13th, 2001
Portland police terrorism expert Winfield Falk hated that his lifes
work was sentenced to die in the shredder.
So he drove to police headquarters in downtown Portland, loaded his
truck with confidential and by then illegal intelligence documents,
and took them home.
The theft was never officially reported.
The files 36 boxes stuffed with surveillance photographs, index cards,
news clippings and intelligence reports collected between 1965 and the
early 1980s spent the next several years in the garage of Falks
Southwest Portland home, where he painstakingly continued to add to
After he died in 1987, the files ended up in a remote, disintegrating
barn. They sat there, unguarded and gathering mold, spiders and mice,
for a decade and a half.
Portland Tribune columnist Phil Stanford obtained the files recently
through a source the Tribune has agreed not to name. The tattered
contents of the 851 manila folders provide a rare window into the world
of police surveillance.
The files reveal that, in addition to monitoring groups engaged in
criminal actions, the police kept watch over a broad range of harmless
political and civic organizations. Intelligence officers built files on
the Peoples Food Store co-op, the Northwest Oregon Voter Registration
Project and the Womens Rights Coalition even the Bicycle Repair
Collective, a city program offering a $24 course on how to fix flat
tires and adjust brakes.
The files obtained by the Tribune focus on organizations, not individual
Portlanders. But in the files appear the names of at least 3,000 people
from 576 organizations. The names are presented in formal intelligence
reports, appear on lists of participants in meetings and groups, are
highlighted on posters that advertise events and are underlined in
Along with militants and activists are hundreds of regular citizens who
were included simply for practicing everyday democracy writing
letters, signing petitions, joining organizations and attending lectures
or school board meetings. The shame about all these spies is, they
didnt need to go and collect all of that information, says Bonnie
Tinker, whose efforts 25 years ago to set up a shelter for abused women
and a rape hot line were characterized as the work of a Marxist
terrorist developing safe houses and covert communications networks. I
would have told them
what we were doing.
Some of Portlands most prominent citizens are named in the files,
including former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, former city Commissioner Mike
Lindberg and recent gubernatorial candidate Beverly Stein. The files
contain a 1968 photograph of Vera Katz showing support for a grape
boycott, although the future Portland mayor is identified as Linda
Police chiefs from the time say they didnt know the files existed.
Current police officials say todays intelligence officers abide by laws
that prohibit them from spying on people or groups that arent involved
in criminal activities. Mayor Katz says the police would have hell to
pay if they broke those rules now.
But the spy files provide a cautionary tale in todays post-Sept. 11
world. They show how intelligence gatherers can be seduced by their own
political convictions. They show how watching one group leads to
watching another, and then another. And they show how easy it is for
secret files to take on a life of their own.
People think surveillance will only be used against the bad people, but
it never works like that, says Ron Herndon, a longtime activist in
Portlands black community who was spied on for years. When you give
law enforcement the unfettered authority to snoop into peoples lives in
the name of national security, it will be abused.
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