Telephone poles around town, from the International District to the University District, are plastered with ominous black-and-white signs.

"Big Brother is coming to town," the posters say. "LEIU is coming," other poles boldly declare.

What's the LEIU, you ask? For starters, it stands for Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit. It's an umbrella group for law enforcement agencies, and it's coming to Seattle for an annual conference June 2-5 [In Other News, April 10]. Agencies like the Seattle Police Department--plus 250 other groups around the U.S., and in a few other countries, like Canada--pay $495 in yearly dues for access to the LEIU's network of information on everything from gangs to people involved in organized crime, which the LEIU pools from member agencies. "It's an association of member agencies that share information when there's a need to share information," explains Captain Richard Wright of the Simi Valley Police Department, who's been the LEIU's general chairman for two years.

In PATRIOT Act-era America, that's more than enough to spook activists. Concerned over civil liberties, and the prospect of police spying on people in the hunt for terrorists, activists are poised to protest the June conference.

The LEIU was formed in 1956 with 26 member agencies, in an era when the feds were reluctant to share info on organized crime with local-level agencies. The California Department of Justice maintains the computer system (members swapped info via index cards in the early days), as the LEIU has no employees of its own. Cops who ask for information are directed to the submitting agency for more details.

While the FBI maintains the more publicly known National Crime Information Center (NCIC)--a database filled with records of criminals, suspects, and stolen property--it's not the same as the LEIU's network. The LEIU draws links between crime investigations occurring separately around the country and "puts two agencies in touch who might not realize they have a common issue." The NCIC, on the other hand, is simply a way to look up a person's criminal record or fingerprints. "There's a difference between information that relates to criminal records and information that is crime prevention in nature," Wright says.

Beyond information-sharing, the LEIU also adopted a set of intelligence-gathering standards in the mid-'70s and expects its member agencies to uphold those standards. "The cornerstone is that you don't collect information that doesn't have a criminal predicate," Wright says. In other words, the LEIU says it frowns on political spying. "Then there are a number of standards about what's legal and ethical to gather, how you maintain it, and how it's disseminated." New Mexico's ACLU cited the LEIU's guidelines as an appropriate standard for Albuquerque's police intelligence unit in 1993, Wright proudly points out.

Lastly, the LEIU operates as a trade group, where criminal-intelligence professionals can exchange methods for investigating crime and ways to manage local intelligence units.

During the first week of June, the group will hold its annual training conference in Seattle at the Red Lion Hotel on Fifth Avenue and Union Street. With an agenda focused on "Criminal Intelligence and the War Against Terrorism," the LEIU conference will draw everyone from local-level cops to officials from the Department of Homeland Security. They'll show up to hear from Tom Ridge, the director of homeland security, who's been invited to deliver the keynote address. And they'll attend seminars on topics like "Informant Management," "Terrorism Related Analysis," and "Criminal Protest Groups."

Which brings us to the protests. For the past few months, activists in Seattle have been setting up an "LEIU welcoming committee," which is prepped to protest the gathering. The nascent anti-LEIU movement just got off the ground this past February, when the Seattle LEIU conference was publicized. But those involved hope people will come to Seattle from around the Pacific Northwest, if not from around the country, to protest. They like to compare the planned protest to the eye-opening 1999 WTO protests, which sparked worldwide awareness of the previously low-profile World Trade Organization.

"No one knew what the WTO was back in 1999, and no one knows what the LEIU is now," says local activist Brady McGarry. This time, the activists' issue is PATRIOT Act-era police spying.

Besides hanging posters around town, the activists have also been meeting every Sunday to plan marches and counter-events during the conference. And they've been passing out leaflets about the group.

One of the activists' biggest beefs is that even though LEIU members' dues are paid with taxpayers' money, the LEIU is a private organization that doesn't have to heed Freedom of Information Act requests. Moreover, anti-LEIU leaflets allege that much of the LEIU's information is unverified, and that the group does collect info on people's political activities, an action prohibited by many police departments.

Unfortunately, most of the activists' documentation on the LEIU is old, dating back to government reports, lawsuits, and news articles from the '60s and '70s (before the LEIU adopted its standards). Local activists are up-front about the lack of current information on the LEIU--even spinning that into another reason to protest it. They say a group like the LEIU, with public agencies as members, should be much more transparent.

For the first time, however, it seems the LEIU is making a small step toward transparency. Part of the reason activists are lining up against it is because they know about the conference--this year's event was publicized by the LEIU itself, via the web ( "We made a decision that there's nothing to hide," says one law enforcement official involved with the LEIU. "We are not doing anything illegal or wrong."

Taking the LEIU up on its declaration of openness, two local Seattle politicians--Seattle City Council Member Nick Licata, and King County Council Member Larry Gossett--sent letters to the conference organizers, requesting admission to the event so they could see for themselves what it's all about. So far, Licata's admission has been denied.