SAN FRANCISCO -- A private intelligence network with ties to an American Jewish group and South Africa is under investigation for illegally tapping into police sources and collecting information on the political activities of more than 12,000 people, authorities say.
As part of the investigation, San Francisco authorities say they have confiscated files containing personal information on a wide range of political activists, ethnic advocates, writers and other U.S. residents. Much of the information allegedly is from confidential government data banks and police agencies.
One former San Francisco police intelligence officer, who allegedly funneled police files to the spy operation, is under investigation on allegations that he sold confidential information about hundreds of people to the South African government. After he was questioned in November by the FBI, which began the investigation, he fled to the Philippines.
Most of the information, however, appears to have been collected on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League, a nationwide organization that is dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and bigotry. Officials of the organization, as well as its paid undercover operatives, could face charges for gathering intelligence illegally, authorities said, but spokesmen for the league denied any wrongdoing.
"What we're looking at is the violation of the statute that prohibits the sale, use and dispersal of confidential information," San Francisco District Attorney Arlo Smith said.
A portion of the information in the files appears to have come from the Los Angeles Police Department, Mr. Smith said. Los Angeles police initially declined to cooperate with San Francisco authorities in the investigation and refused to assist in a December search of the Anti-Defamation League office in Los Angeles.
"They felt it was a sensitive matter, and they didn't wish to cooperate," said San Francisco Assistant District Attorney John Dwyer, who is overseeing the case.
Officials of the Anti-Defamation League in San Francisco and Los Angeles have cooperated with the investigation, allowing police to search their offices without a warrant. They acknowledged that their organization worked with police in collecting information on people believed to be anti-Semitic or involved in hate crimes, but the officials insisted that they did not violate the law.
"It has been a regular practice of the ADL to trade hate crime-related information with police departments," said Richard Hirschhaut, executive director of the organization's Northern California office. "It has always been our understanding and our credo in conducting our fact-finding work that we conduct our work from a high ethical plateau and in conjunction with the law."
In the past, the Los Angeles and San Francisco police departments have come under criticism for collecting intelligence files on activists,political figures or elected officials who spoke out on controversial issues. Both departments have been chastised, and intelligence-gathering operations have been ordered curtailed.
Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reported that an internal Los Angeles Police Department investigation found no physical evidence to support allegations that the Organized Crime Intelligence Division spied on politicians and celebrities.
But the San Francisco district attorney's office suspects that certain police officers have been working illegally with an intelligence network that operates nationwide in connection with the Anti-Defamation League.
The 12,000 computer files seized by police include information on 12,000 people from across the United States and data obtained from several police agencies, including the Portland, Ore., police department.
"The ADL is running this all over the country," said one source close to the investigation. "The ADL set up this great system for collecting information and South Africa tapped into it."
Portland police deny any wrongdoing and say the information they passed on to the Anti-Defamation League was available to the public. But San Francisco Police Capt. John Willett said, "We're looking at whether other police agencies have done anything inappropriate."
Arab-Americans are concerned that some of the files have been passed on to the Israeli government and its intelligence agency, Mossad. One person among the 12,000, an Arab-American activist living in Chicago, was recently arrested while traveling in Israel.
Many details of the investigation were murky because a San Francisco judge has placed most of the evidence under seal until charges are filed, perhaps next month, authorities said. But the San Francisco Police Commission has ordered the release of individual files to those who were allegedly spied on.
Much of the case revolves around the mysterious figure of Roy Bullock, who has spent the past 40 years as a free-lance investigator and undercover operative.
According to investigators, Mr. Bullock, 58, worked on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League as well as other groups and amassed extensive files on Arab-Americans, supporters of the African National Congress, Black Muslims, Irish-Americans, Skinheads, neo-Nazis, the National Lawyers Guild, left-wing groups and other activists in the United States.
Authorities said Mr. Bullock worked closely with police officers from various departments and collected such confidential information as criminal records, intelligence files, driver's license photographs, home addresses and car registrations.
Mr. Bullock could not be reached for comment.
Investigators said Mr. Bullock was paid by the Anti-Defamation League through a Los Angeles law firm that acted as an intermediary. Officials of the Anti-Defamation League would not confirm or deny Mr. Bullock's association with the organization.
Among the organizations he allegedly infiltrated were Skinhead and Arab-American groups, where he gathered detailed information on members.