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Inside the Phoenix PD's Use of Federal Anti-Terrorism Resources to Track Valley Protesters

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Democratic U.S. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of that Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which analyzes waste in government, said in the 2012 document that "fusion centers may provide valuable services in fields other than terrorism, such as contributions to traditional criminal investigations, public safety, or disaster response and recovery efforts." Nevertheless, he recommended that Congress "clarify the purpose of fusion centers and link their funding to their performance."

Republican U.S. Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a ranking member of the subcommittee who initiated the investigation of fusion centers, said: "Congress has a duty to the American people to ensure . . . it is getting value for the millions of taxpayer dollars invested in fusion centers."

Perhaps Phoenix terrorism liaison officers and analysts also were keeping tabs on actual terrorism threats, but they certainly were absorbed by Occupy Phoenix.

Silent Witness, a nonprofit organization that solicits crime tips, passed along to the PPD an anonymous online tip it received on November 18 about an "Occupy nut" from the Phoenix area.

The unnamed tipster wrote that the woman appeared to be involved with a violent organization.

"I'm aware no crime has technically been committed," the tipster continued, claiming the young woman had outstanding arrest warrants, was paranoid, and knew of specific plans for a violent revolt involving bombs. "[But] I've got an actual crime for you . . . illegal possession/use of marijuana. I've seen her smoking it on camera."

The individual, who had encountered the woman he called Amber only online, pledged to get police a photo of her smoking pot.

Police didn't wait for the photo of her smoking pot. They set out to identify the woman from an earlier photo provided by the tipster of her sitting in front of a computer.

"We have a Facebook photo and tried to do facial recognition, but she was wearing glasses," Dowhan wrote to police officials after sending the photo for analysis to another police agency within the counter-terrorism center.

It appears the photo was sent to a Facial Recognition Unit operated by the county Sheriff's Office, which can compare biometric data from photographs, such as those found on Facebook, to photos in a huge database — and not just pictures of people who have had brushes with the law.

Aside from 4.7 million mug shots from Arizona jails, 12,000 photos in the state's sex-offender database, and 2 million others listed in federal jails, the database includes about 18 million Arizona driver's license photos.

Hodai reports that there were "multiple instances" of police taking photos from Facebook and then using facial-recognition software to attempt to identify people believed to be Occupy members. He says it's important to note that the invasive technology was employed to investigate protesters as though police had probable cause to believe they had committed crimes.

Going to such extremes seems unwarranted. But Phoenix police spokesman Trent Crump tells New Times that the department would have been criticized as "negligent" had it not checked out a such alleged threats and somebody "actually carried out some kind of violent behavior."

When the PPD encounters "any behavior or statements" that allude to a possible threat, Crump says, it must follow up.

Documents show, however, that police tracked and dug into the backgrounds of individuals previously identified as members of Occupy Phoenix, even in the absence of any threat.

On December 14, 2011, at least five members of the PPD's executive staff, including Central City Precinct Commander Louis Tovar, received an e-mail regarding "Phoenix Occupiers" from a man identifying himself as David Mullin.

Mullin wrote: "Dear Sir or Madam, Please consider leaving the Occupy movement alone. They speak for me, and I suspect a large portion of American[s] who are upset with corporate greed and the ability to purchase politicians and their votes. We are going to take back America for its citizens, and it would probably be better for your careers not to get in the way."

He signed off with a simple "thanks."

Tovar noted to his colleagues that he had received similar e-mails from others and that he was merely giving investigators a heads-up.

It was enough for Assistant Phoenix Police Chief Tracy Montgomery to take Mullin's note as a possible threat, if only to her job security. Responding to members of the department's executive staff, Montgomery wrote: "Interesting e-mail threatening our careers. Anyone know the name?"

Montgomery's question prompted a subordinate commander to order that a lieutenant "check it out," and the e-mail ended up with Detective C.J. Wren of the city's Homeland Defense Bureau (part of the state counter-terrorism unit) and with analyst Brenda Dowhan.

The following day, Wren sent an e-mail to his lieutenant letting him know that "we figured out exactly where this guy got the names and e-mails to send that message." He identified the e-mailer as a former Glendale resident who lived in Las Vegas.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo