Assessing the peace threat in San Francisco

ON a cloudless day last June, the USS Missouri docked at its new home port of San Francisco. It was a red-letter day, both for the city, which had pushed hard to get the Missouri, and for the Navy. A big welcoming ceremony had been organized for the public, replete with brass bands, balloons, and showgirls. Several thousand angry demonstrators were also on hand. They were protesting the $100 million military aid to the contra rebels that Congress had just approved.

San Francisco police effectively muffled the demonstration. The police somehow seemed to know the organizers' plans - down to the last detail of where the sitters-in would sit - and thus were able to keep the demonstrators away from the festivities. One hundred thirty-eight demonstrators were arrested that day, almost all of them practitioners of Gandhi-style nonviolence. Meanwhile, the official party went on as planned.

Good police work? Not quite.

Documents subpoenaed by the Western States Legal Foundation, lawyers for 14 people, including Daniel Ellsberg, who chose to go to trial, disclosed heavy undercover surveillance of the Emergency Response Network, the anti-contra group that had organized the protest. Official radio logs showed the care that had been taken by San Francisco's intelligence unit, which a week before the ceremonies had prepared a ``threat assessment'' for the Navy.

The Western States Legal Foundation pushed the city to release more documentation. The lawyers expected to discover the details of police infiltration - infiltration unjustified by any credible threat to national security. These demonstrators, after all, were hardly domestic terrorists. Most of them were veterans of the Livermore Action Group, which had a long history of nonviolent protest against nulear weapons research.

When Adrian Ivancevich, the San Francisco district attorney handling the case, asked the police to supply the documentation, they flatly refused. It took a subpoena from the demonstators' attorneys to get those files. But what the police produced was worthless; all the documentation was mysteriously missing. That meant the San Francisco Police Department was either conducting all its business by word of mouth or - far more likely - that someone was hiding something.

Western States Legal Foundation tried to get the case against the demonstrators dismissed, arguing that evidence was being hidden by the police. The trial judge said no, and the case was set for trial Feb. 3.

Just three days before the scheduled hearing, there was a break-in at the church office of the Rev. Steven Brannon, a lawyer and Episcopal priest who was working on the case. A window frame had been sawed out in a crude and unsuccessful effort to elude the alarm system. Although there was money and sacristy silver in Mr. Brannon's office, only the legal files had been disturbed.

The very next morning, the district attorney called Western States Legal Foundation to say that all charges against the defendants in the Missouri sit-in case were being dropped. Two days later, in open court, Mr. Ivancevich told the judge that information sought by the demonstrators had not been turned over by the San Francisco police, even though they had been ordered to do so.

Then came the second shocker: Ivancevich reported that the information ``can no longer be provided'' - in other words, that it had disappeared. The police insisted that the only missing items were some photos - ``we keep no files on people who exercise their First Amendment rights,'' said a spokesman for the department - a claim that the demonstrators' lawyers found incredible.

There is no proof that the break-in at the church office was tied to the Missouri case, but the circumstantial evidence is very suggestive. This wasn't the first such suspicious burglary. Three years earlier, in the midst of an antinuclear demonstration case that Mr. Brannon was handling, there had also been a break-in. Then as now, the only target was the file. Two big cases, two potentially embarrassing disclosures, two break-ins.

Did the police carry out the break-in themselves? Who knows. No one is likely to come forward and take responsibility. Another government agency could have been involved; the FBI, for instance, doesn't exactly have a pristine record on unauthorized surveillance.

It's also possible that a group of would-be patriots, either working on its own or under contract to a government agency, handled the job. That is not as far fetched as it may sound. For one thing, the break-in was done awfully sloppily to have been the work of professionals; for another thing, police departments in other cities have bought information from such groups.

It's even conceivable that the break-in was prompted, not by the Missouri litigation, but by Mr. Brannon's legal defense of Latin American aliens seeking sanctuary in the United States. Several dozen such burglaries of sanctuary offices have been reported across the country.

Meanwhile, Adrian Ivancevich, a distict attorney who believes that demonstrators are entitled to a fair trial, has told his superiors in the DA's office that he won't handle any more such cases. When the subject is peace, too few people who work for the government seem willing to play by the rules.

David L. Kirp is a professor of law and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

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