Behind the Headlines: ADL Investigation Raises Questions About Tactics Used in Data Gathering
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Behind the Headlines: ADL Investigation Raises Questions About Tactics Used in Data Gathering

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The Anti-Defamation League’s letterhead states its mission this way: “To stop the defamation of the Jewish people … to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike.”

But an ongoing San Francisco police investigation has raised questions about whether ADL’s tactics have compromised its own mandate.

Some analysts, primarily those from Jewish organizations, are also concerned that the highly publicized investigation of ADL will have a chilling effect on the ability of others to expose extremist groups.

The investigation may have already tainted the very notion of organizations collecting information and monitoring groups that are perceived as potential threats to the Jewish community, these observers said.

ADL is suspected of keeping tabs on more than 950 organizations and as many as 12,000 individuals, many of them involved in right-wing, white supremacist or Arab-American activities, according to a police affidavit released publicly.

In an April 8 raid on ADL’s San Francisco office, the district attorney sought evidence that ADL has been using law enforcement information, supposedly obtained illegally, in its alleged intelligence network.

Few of the analysts from Jewish and non-Jewish organizations with whom the Jewish Telegraphic Agency spoke thought it likely that ADL would be convicted, if indicted, for violating the law.

Yet some observers involved in information gathering said the ADL may have gone “too far” in its zeal to gather information and ventured into areas which are unethical, if not illegal.

Either way, the police investigation of ADL’s activities may have a chilling effect.

“A lot of entirely legitimate fact-finding may be compromised or otherwise tainted,” said Jerome Chanes, co-director for domestic concerns at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.


“It will now be extremely difficult to get any cooperation from police agencies. This scandal will have an incredible chilling effect,” said Daniel Levitas, an expert on white supremacists and former director of the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal. “ADL’s overzealousness will cost the Jewish community dearly.”

But others, including Gary Rubin, director of national affairs at the American Jewish Committee, disagreed.

“I don’t think it will have a major impact on anybody outside of ADL, and I sincerely hope it won’t affect them,” he said.

Other analysts were concerned that in the firestorm of press coverage surrounding the ADL imbroglio, even above-board, widely accepted methods of information-gathering would be called into question.

“There is a catchall attitude that having a file is by implication illegal and openly immoral,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

“The keeping of files on hate groups is not only not a crime, it’s a mitzvah,” he said. “I have every confidence that all agencies in a democracy try their best to gather information in a way that doesn’t violate American law. The whole notion of an open society goes both ways.

“The McCarthyite mentality that the whole notion that keeping files is wrong is not something anyone in the Jewish community should accept.”

Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director, and Melvin Salberg, the group’s national chairman, said in an April 16 statement, “ADL maintains files on a wide variety of organizations, as would any other responsible business, journalist, or civil rights organization.

“To imply that simply maintaining a file containing documents mentioning an individual or an organization is tantamount to ‘spying’ on that individual or organization is preposterous.”

David Elcott, an ethicist at CLAL — National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, found no fault with ADL’s actions.

“The ADL, using what it can to get what (information) it can, is not as invasive as it sounds at first blush,” Elcott said.

“Banks sell data on me and you on a zillion topics, and this doesn’t strike me as an issue of moral concern,” he said.

But Levitas, the expert on white supremacists, maintained that ADL was monitoring groups which it had no business following, including Arab American groups like the American-Arab Anti-Defamation Committee.


Levitas believes that the criterion for monitoring a group or individual should be “whether they’re a threat in violent terms, not just whether you have a political disagreement with someone,” he said.

Other analysts said that there was nothing unethical about the methods that ADL used to gather facts, but raised questions about the close relationship ADL has cultivated with law-enforcement agencies.

The ADL has “lately served as an arm, an adjunct of law enforcement,” charged Chip Berlet, an analyst at Political Research Associates, a liberal think tank in Cambridge, Mass. that tracks authoritarian groups on the extreme right and extreme left.

“As ADL has been drawn into this network with law enforcement it has lost its ability to speak out on issues of protecting civil liberties, which include government abuse,” he said.

That charge was denied Barbara Wahl, a lawyer who is working as counsel to ADL.

“ADL’s mission is completely unrelated to the missions or objectives of law enforcement. We have communication with them, but most of it is not intelligence gathering. Most is security issues, community awareness issues,” she said.

But she acknowledged that “in the event that information in ADL’s possession would be useful in connection with other, independent investigations that law enforcement is undertaking, then there is collaboration,”

Elcott of CLAL said that “to ask ADL not to maximize its relationships with law-enforcement agencies and those who have political clout is naive.

“The goal of ADL is not everyone’s human rights, but to build a less bigoted community. One way to do that is to have relationships with sources of power that can protect human rights,” he said.

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