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Spy, Spy Again
Total Information Awareness is returning on the state level, and New York is among the first on board

It’s baaaack. Total Information Awareness, the Big Brother-like Pentagon plan to identify terrorist suspects through data mining of Americans’ personal records [See “O Big Brother, Where Art Thou,” Newsfront, Dec. 5, 2002] was scrapped last September after it encountered bipartisan opposition in Congress. Now critics are saying that Congress’s stake somehow missed the vampire’s heart, and TIA is back in a new form: MATRIX, a multistate federally funded antiterrorist and anticrime database that New York has provisionally joined.

After a Jan. 22 Associated Press report brought MATRIX into the public eye, two prominent members of the New York State Assembly voiced deep concern about the program’s potential impact on privacy rights. At the same time, the American Civil Liberties Union made available documents newly obtained through the Freedom of Information Law that support its contention that the project closely resembles TIA.

“MATRIX is Total Information Awareness, part two,” said Christopher Calabrese, the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program counsel. “It sorts through billions of commercial and government records looking for patterns and individuals to investigate. It makes every American a suspect. . . . The federal government is clearly using the MATRIX as a back door to accomplish what it couldn’t with TIA.”

MATRIX, which stands for Multistate Antiterrorism Information Exchange, was developed beginning in October 2001 by the Seisint Corporation of Boca Raton, Fla. Seisint is a personal data collection company that gathers information on individuals from various publicly available sources. The state of Florida and federal law enforcement officials helped Seisint create this investigative tool by combining its commercial records—real estate, boat and Internet domain name ownership; address changes, utility connections, and bankruptcies; civil court records such as marriages and divorces, business filings, liens; and voter registrations, all going as far back as 30 years—with government criminal and motor vehicle records.

Seisint said its program accurately fingered five of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers who had lived in Florida (it is not clear if any innocent people were misidentified as suspects in the trial run). From 2002 to 2003, the federal government provided the project with a total of $12 million through the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security. The Institute for Intergovernmental Research, a Florida-based nonprofit corporation, administers the program and distributes funds to Seisint and the states involved.

At first up to 20 states were involved in the project, but due to concerns over privacy or funding, several states withdrew. Connecticut, Florida, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah are either still participating or considering taking part. Participating states are pooling their information—about 20 billion bits of data in total—so that 450 law enforcement officers from the other states, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security have access to it.

In the minutes of an October 2002 planning session attended by representatives of 12 states, obtained by the ACLU through FOIL, the FBI and Seisint revealed that they had developed a data-mining application, FCIC Plus, with the help of the FBI, the Secret Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Data mining, with its potential to wrongfully target innocent Americans as terrorists, was the centerpiece of Total Information Awareness.

New York State Office of Public Security spokeswoman Lynn Rasic explained that the state’s involvement with MATRIX is still tentative. “The New York State Police, in coordination with the Office of Public Security, is currently evaluating the program,” she said. “The state does not intend to participate unless the program complies with our privacy standards one hundred percent, and has federal funds to support it.” New York is currently not sharing information with any other states, she added.

R. Clay Jester, the IIR’s MATRIX project coordinator, denied that it was a new version of TIA, saying the application can be used only to bring up information on suspects in an active criminal investigation, and does not finger possible terrorists based on predetermined profiling standards. “I think it’s unfortunate how this thing has been mischaracterized,” he said, but agreed it would be helpful if laws were passed regulating its use. Jester predicted that after the FOIL requests were granted, the differences between MATRIX and TIA would become apparent.

Some of the documents the ACLU has obtained, however, seem to contradict Jester’s prognostication. In the minutes of a Feb. 6, 2003, meeting in San Antonio, Texas, James T. Moore, the commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and chair of the MATRIX committee, said “a key point of the effort is to build a national intelligence system.” Toward that end, Bob Cummings of IIR suggested that “the law-enforcement agency in each state provide the criminal history information and then work on gaining access to and providing the other information not controlled by the law-enforcement agency in that state.” Lt. Col. Steven Cumoletti and Lt. Col. Bart Johnson of the New York State Police attended this meeting.

The minutes also suggest that the creators of MATRIX felt they had something to hide when they edited a brochure describing the project. “Chairman Moore advised that the MATRIX promotional document is being updated to remove references to data mining . . .” the record states.

Also, the federal government has been involved with MATRIX at a higher level than was previously known. At the meeting, Moore stated that he and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had briefed Vice President Dick Cheney, Homeland Security head Tom Ridge and FBI director Robert Mueller on the project.

Not everyone in New York is accepting MATRIX with open arms. New York State Assemblyman Alexander “Pete” Grannis (D-Manhattan) said that MATRIX “poses a real threat” to civil liberties and privacy. “I think it’s extremely troubling, and I think before we move ahead with this we should have it looked at and approved by the State Legislature,” he said firmly. (The executive branch responded to the federal invitation to participate, but it was not brought before the Legislature.) Grannis added that abuses of the system are likely and that he intends to take the matter up with his colleagues.

Assemblyman William Parment (D-Jamestown) shared Grannis’ concern. “Compiling a multiaddress database on individuals who are not suspected of any criminal wrongdoing,” he said, “seems to me to be an abuse of government discretion, and violative of privacy rights.”

—Glenn Weiser


Careful consideration: Members of the Citizens’ Police Review Board, including chairman Kenneth Cox (center). Photo: Chris Shields

A Little Respect
As the police department comes under scrutiny, so does the board that’s supposed to monitor it

There were about 30 people in the audience on Monday at the regular meeting of the Citizens’ Police Review Board—a virtually unheard of number for a board that’s used to deliberating in front of a handful of viewers at most, and about the same as the number who showed up for the board’s public hearing last Tuesday.

A rash of department troubles—including the firing of a popular commander, the shooting of David Scaringe on New Year’s Eve, and charges that council members have had difficulty getting information from the police department—have generated a lot of interest in the board.

It’s also bringing to light the frustrations and limitations of a volunteer board that was born of political compromise in 2000; its enabling legislation walked a line between wanting something stronger than previous incarnations without incurring lawsuits from the police union.

It has been successful on those counts, but many people don’t understand what they can and cannot do, say board members. “The public at large thinks we actually investigate complaints,” said board member Judith Mazza. The board only reviews the investigations done by the Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards. The board has reviewed 145 complaints over the course of its existence, and made numerous policy recommendations.

The limits on what they can do are frustrating, said Mazza. For example, they are limited to saying if they agree or not with OPS conclusions about a complaint, but this often doesn’t give the full picture of the board’s feelings on the matter, she said. They also have no way to know if they are seeing complaints over and over about the same officers.

To really carry out its mission, the board needs at least some more power to do its own investigations, said Mazza, because requests for information from the police department are often stymied. That sentiment was echoed by Albany Councilwoman Carolyn McLaughlin at the pubic hearing on Feb. 3. “We did not get what the people were looking for,” she said, referring to the repeated references to unfulfilled information requests submitted to the department. “We did not empower you. . . . I will challenge my colleagues to review the legislation to give you the power to do what needs to be done.”

But board chairman Rev. Kenneth Cox said that the greater problem lay with lack of cooperation and support from the Common Council. “The power [we need] is inherent in the process,” he said, referring to the board’s right to ask the council for subpoena power and other help, “but if a primary party of the process is detached,” that makes things difficult.

Calls to McLaughlin were not returned, but Councilman Richard Conti admitted that the council had “fall[en] down on some of the oversight we committed to doing,” and “didn’t do anything” with the first report it received from the board.

“If you have to go to another political body that has other concerns, that takes away the independence right there,” said Mark Mishler, a lawyer who favors a stronger review board and was involved in some of the predecessors to this one.

Common Council President Helen Desfosses said she anticipates “more dialogue in 2004” between the council and the review board, and said that “with four years of our own experience to draw on” that the board and the council are now in a better position to act on recommendations to enhance its capacity.

At its last meeting, the board set a deadline of Feb. 9 to receive a long list of information it had requested repeatedly, in some cases since its inception. At Monday’s meeting, Jennifer Cottrell, assistant corporation counsel for the city, presented responses to the requests. Some of the responses were curt—regarding a concern about the handcuffing of minors during the execution of search warrants, Cottrell reported that “due to safety concerns the practice will not be changed.” In another case she noted that a recommendation of the board had been “taken under advisement” with no further elaboration. Many of the responses, particularly requests for copies of various police procedures, were contained in confidential appendices that were not shared with the public. A request for data on the number of times an officer had fired a gun was not filled because the department wanted to know under what circumstances.

One response drew widespread ire—a flat refusal of a board request put a copy of the nonconfidential portions of the department’s Standard Operating Procedures in the library of the government law center. “Our feeling is that it needs to be requested through FOIL [Freedom of Information Law],” said Cottrell, adding that people should pay the maximum allowed 25 cents per page copying fee when requesting it. This would come to approximately $100.

Councilman Michael O’Brien practically leapt from his seat in the public comment period to respond. “There’s nothing in the law that says FOIL is the only way to get that information,” he said. “Whoever made this decision ought to look at themselves,” concurred Councilman Dominick Calsolero.

“The average citizen, no, they shouldn’t have to pay,” said Cox after the meeting. “It’s good if more people understand [police procedure].”

But overall, Cox was upbeat about the fact that their deadline had been met, and didn’t want to comment on the thoroughness of the repsonse until he had been able to read the appendices. “Last month we were more forceful and we strongly requested information,” he said. “The deadline worked. . . . We’ve enhanced our credibility.” He said he was pleased that every issue was addressed, but “is everything satisfied? No.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Miriam Axel-Lute can be reached at maxel-lute@metroland.net or 463-2500 ext. 141.


Up for discussion: Panelists talk shop about culture clash. Photo: Ellen Descisciolo

Intelligencia In Practice
Preeminent minds converse about globalization and the clash of civilizations

World-class scholars convened at Skidmore College this weekend (Feb. 6-8) to talk liberalism, democracy, and the myriad sources of stress between the East and West. The panel comprised powerful thinkers with impressive credentials, and an audience of curious listeners who devoted the better part of their weekend to the mental calisthenics of global political thought.

Hosted by the journal Salmagundi, “Jihad, McWorld, Modernity: Public Intellectuals Debate the Clash of Civilizations” was an ambitious topic of conversation to say the least. Robert Boyers, the editor of Salmagundi, who put the panel together, said he was interested in examining the idea that America’s power could be used as “potentially a force for good” as well as gathering a diverse group of academics and “putting them on display and seeing the way their heads work when they confront these big questions” about clashing civilizations and America’s role in that conflict.

Among the points examined over the five sessions were whether or not this East-West clash is irreconcilable; the concept of a “just” war; and terrorism. Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, helped lead two sessions about the role of women in Eastern cultures and the tensions between universal values and diversity.

Because many panelists had diverse areas of global expertise—India, Iran, former Soviet states, South Africa, to name a few—the discussion was globally oriented. In his opening remarks, however, Benjamin Barber, whose book Jihad vs. McWorld provided part of the conference’s title, implored the panel and the audience to not simply to try to figure out problems within Islam but to look “in the mirror honestly at our own positions.”

The session on the idea of waging “just” wars was supposed to begin with remarks from Christopher Hitchens, a former columnist for the Nation who now writes for Vanity Fair, and Jean Elshtain, a professor of ethics at the University of Chicago, but neither were able to attend, much to the disappointment of many in the audience. Boyers said Hitchens intended to come until the last moment but the combination of icy conditions on Friday and a “serious” personal condition prevented him from attending. They were the only panelists who were decidedly pro-war and therefore would have diversified the discussion significantly.

A few conference-goers thought a debate format instead of discussion would have livened things up and perhaps added some focus to the often freewheeling conversation. But after 13 hours of listening, and about an hour and a half of having their questions fielded, many attendees felt that the discussion had been thought-provoking, but the panel offered little in terms of practical suggestions.

“I enjoyed hearing what the speakers had to say but there was something frustrating about it all, as well as distant,” said senior Ben Scheim. “I wasn’t often convinced that any of them were ever actually engaging in dialogue.” That said, he appreciated the potential to raise awareness in the community about world issues, though he would have liked to see more audience participation.

“Public intellectuals are very good at talking, they’re not necessarily so good at listening,” said Barber. He said he would like to see this type of discussion become more accessible to the American masses, not simply the well-educated. “A lot of Americans are ready to talk about more seriously and thoughtfully about these issues,” he said, noting that the problem is that there are few venues for doing so. “So the question is, how do we find a way into the media, and into the communications networks that broker our relationship with the American people so we can have some influence.”

Yet others thought the panelists shouldn’t have had answers, but were simply to offer food for thought as questioning, active members of society. “I actually think what they’re doing is modeling for us how to be an informed citizen,” said Sarah Goodwin, associate dean of the faculty. “I think all of these people, and I as a faculty member, want to be a model for my students. I’m not going to be an expert in this but I’m still going to be voting on it,” she said.

Peter Warren, a teacher at Niskayuna High School, asked the panel how he could help bring this discussion back to his community. He didn’t get much of an answer but did buy three books, took pages of notes and said “within the next couple of weeks I’m going to try to digest this from my notes and then think about how and why I’m going to put this in the classroom context.” Then, expressing the thoughts of many attendees, he added, “This isn’t the answer, but now I have all of the questions.”

—Ashley Hahn

Ashley Hahn can be reached at ahan@metroland.net


Cop out: former Albany Police commander, Chris D’Alessandro. Photo: Chris Shields

Commander, You’re Fired
After months of speculation, a veteran Albany police officer is let go, rallying the community he served around a new cause

‘Now that’s a nice picture,” Chris D’Alessandro said, pointing to the blown-up, color photograph that sat on the table before him. Taken on a bright sunny day last summer on the corner of Second Street and Lexington Avenue in Arbor Hill, the picture shows six little black girls playing double Dutch on the sidewalk next to the Albany Police Department’s short-lived mobile outreach vehicle—an aging Chevy camper with APD banners hanging on the side.

For a few months last summer, the camper was strategically moved throughout Arbor Hill from one known trouble spot to the next, carrying a message to criminals and law-abiding citizens alike: The Albany Police are here.

“When [the outreach unit] was there, it had a calming effect on what just days before had been an open-air drug market,” D’Alessandro said. “We had residents comment that this was the first time in years that they had a restful night’s sleep because there weren’t cars speeding up the street or groups of people hanging out in front playing loud music. People could look at it as a symbol of the police department and see it as an asset to the community.”

After residents saw the unit sitting in vacant lots on Swan and Lark streets and elsewhere, D’Alessandro said he began receiving requests from residents in other parts of Arbor Hill that the unit be moved near them. Unfortunately, the camper was taken off the streets after only two months for lack of funding, but D’Alessandro said that picture best illustrates what he was able to accomplish in his last days with the department.

D’Alessandro spent the last few years of his tenure devising and implementing similar strategies with residents from some of Albany’s high-crime neighborhoods, learning from community members how to police their backyard.

“I allowed myself to be mentored by the community,” D’Alessandro said. “Certainly I didn’t have any magic answers for their problems, but I did care and I did try to help them.”

D’Alessandro’s tenure came to an end last week, when, with little explanation, he was fired from his post as APD commander, the first commander ever fired from the department. D’Alessandro declined to discuss what he believes is the reason for his termination before making a decision on legal action.

Rumors leaked from “department sources” to the Times Union stated that D’Alessandro’s termination stemmed from an internal investigation surrounding a derogatory flier circulated within the department lampooning another officer. Detective James Miller, the department’s spokesman, would not comment on these allegations or why D’Alessandro was fired, citing privacy concerns. Miller would only say that a “lengthy internal investigation” took place prior to the firing.

According to Paul DerOhannesian, D’Alessandro’s attorney, his client wasn’t even informed as to why he was fired. DerOhannesian said it is uncertain whether his client will file a wrongful termination suit at this point, but he said it is certain at least that his client’s dismissal was handled in poor taste. D’Alessandro, who had never been formally disciplined prior to his firing, learned of his dismissal when reporters called him last Thursday night. He received a formal letter from the department two days later.

The department’s scant explanation for the commander’s dismissal did little to quell an angered public. Many members of the communities D’Alessandro policed have questioned why a police officer who was so popular with so many would be pulled from the streets.

David Soares, one of Albany County’s Assistant District Attorneys, oversees the city’s community-accountability board (which seeks alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders committing quality-of-life crimes). He spent time walking the streets with D’Alessandro last summer, listening to residents’ concerns and offering advice for solving those problems.

“The currency with which we operate in this community is trust, and we’ve slowly built equity in this community with our work over the past year and a half,” Soares said. “Not having [D’Alessandro] be a part of our efforts in the future, we’ve lost some of that equity and getting it back will take time.”

Miller said the commander’s termination should not affect the department’s community prosecution efforts. Some residents were concerned that firing D’Alessandro might sever the bond he helped form between the department and some neighborhood residents, effectively weakening APD’s community-policing initiatives, but Miller said “that’s very subjective.”

“Obviously those community members you’re speaking with are supporters of Chris,” Miller said.

D’Alessandro’s termination came in the wake of allegations made earlier this week by a black APD detective. Kenneth Wilcox reportedly is planning to file a suit against D’Alessandro alleging a hostile work environment and racial discrimination under the former commander’s watch. Wilcox’s attorney, Bernard Bryan, did not return calls for comment. Wilcox was reportedly one of the officers D’Alessandro investigated during an independent, internal audit of overtime practices in the detectives office a few years back.

D’Alessandro and his attorney would say only that Wilcox’s accusations would be dealt with in court, but representatives from the communities the former officer policed, which are primarily African-American, said D’Alessandro is not a racist.

“Many of you here know me, you know my family, you know my politics,” said Aaron Mair of Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens during the public comment period at the Citizens Police Review Board meeting on Monday. “This man stands wrongly accused as a racist. He has stood by our families. . . . He is guilty of one thing: doing his job.”

Mair and others called for a transparent outside investigation into the firing.

Though Soares, Mair and others in Arbor Hill and the South End speak highly of the former commander’s involvement in those communities, Albany Common Council President Pro Tempore Michael Brown doesn’t see what all the fuss is about.

“[D’Alessandro’s supporters] just make him sound like he was a super cop, or Robocop, and I just think differently,” said Brown, whose ward D’Alessandro policed. Brown said he still receives calls from constituents concerned about the delivery of police services, and that he’d spoken to “hundreds” of people unaware of D’Alessandro. What Brown left out, however, is that Jestin Williams, a community activist whose campaign for county legislature Brown is managing, told the councilman on numerous occasions about working with D’Alessandro and Soares on neighborhood issues.

“D’Alessandro was a bridge builder, and it seemed like the bridge was almost built and now there is a piece missing,” Williams said. “He marched with us, he prayed with us, I met his family. He was just a great guy who had no problem talking with and embracing black people.”

“As far as Mike Brown’s statements, I can’t defend that,” Williams said. Brown could not be reached for comment yesterday [Wednesday, Feb. 11].

It also wasn’t clear whether Brown spoke with members of the West Hill Ministerial Fellowship, 13 pastors and ministers from which recently sent a letter to city officials stating that D’Alessandro was an “outstanding representative of the [APD]” who “demonstrated a genuine caring and consideration for residents” of their community.

—Travis Durfee

Travis Durfee can be reached at tdurfee@metroland.net or 463-2500 ext. 144

Trailmix: There Is No Way to Democracy, Democracy Is the Way

Although it’s rarely mentioned, hovering in the back of most Democrats’ minds are two facts: George W. Bush didn’t actually win the last election, and damn if he hasn’t raised a boatload of cash in his push for this one. That doesn’t mean Bush isn’t beatable, but it does highlight just how crucial issues of campaign-finance reform, voting reform, and ballot security are.

Howard Dean has a mixed record. His decision to pull out of a promise to use public financing drew a lot of negative attention, but he has also prioritized promoting campaign-finance reform—including strengthening public financing so candidates don’t feel forced to withdraw. And yet, while governor, he targeted portions of Vermont’s public-financing system for elimination.

Dean wants to offer a tax credit to small political donors, switch to nonpartisan redistricting, give the Federal Election Commission some teeth, and require a paper trail for electronic voting machines. According to the Center for Public Integrity, Dean’s top “career patrons” (supporters of all his different races) include Time Warner, Microsoft, and IBM; a farmer in Sharon, Vt.; and a half-dozen elite universities.

John Edwards has been strong on campaign-finance reform since his senatorial campaign. He was a cosponsor of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, and hasn’t wavered from that position. That makes it odd, however, that it’s hard to find any mention of the subject on Edwards’ campaign Web site—though lobbying reform is on his short list of issues. He has criticized electronic voting machines as unreliable. Edwards’ top career patrons are Shangri-La Entertainment, Goldman Sachs, and law firms.

John Kerry follows Edwards’ suit in having a strong record on campaign-finance reform, and yet not listing any position on it on his campaign Web site (it’s there on his Senate site). He has consistently voted for campaign-finance reform, rejects contributions from PACs, and has gone beyond the usual requirements in disclosing his large donors. Nonetheless, the Center for Public Integrity and the Sacramento Bee have pointed out that Kerry has accepted some very large donations from companies that are overseen by committees on which he sits, and he has a history of siding with these companies on regulatory matters. For example, he supported the controversial merger of Fleet Financial Corp. ($182,387 in donations) and BankBoston.

Kerry’s top career patron is law firm Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, which represents telecommunications and cable companies. Kerry sits on the subcommittee on telecommunications. Other top donors include Fleet, Time Warner, Harvard, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and four other law firms.

Dennis Kucinich, who by the way has raised over $6 million and came in third in the Washington Caucuses, is predictably firm on all of these issues. “Private control of campaign financing leads to private control of the government itself,” his campaign-finance statement reads. He is a cosponsor H.R. 2239, the “Voter Confidence and Increased Accountability Act of 2003,” which would not only require all voting machines to produce a voter-verified paper record, it would ban the use of “undisclosed software and wireless communications devices” in voting systems and require mandatory surprise recounts in 0.5 percent of jurisdictions. Kucinich supports proportional representation and instant runoff voting. His top career patrons are all labor unions.

It’s also worth noting that the recently departed candidate Wesley Clark was the only one to explicitly emphasize needing to protect the rights of African-American voters at the polls.

—Miriam Axel-Lute


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