Students discover ‘bug’ in Whittier College newspaper office

CALIFORNIA — Student newspaper staff members at WhittierCollege uncovered what may turn out to be the story of the year … in their very own office.

A routine maintenance service call last week turned up an electronicsurveillance device imbedded in the office walls of the QuakerCampus. It is not known how long the bug, which was not functioningwhen pulled from the wall, was hidden. The device was capableof transmitting a radio signal to any receiver, tuned to the correctfrequency, within a three-mile radius, editor Amy Stice said.

The discovery prompted a shared sense of disbelief and concernamong the newspaper staff and the university’s administration.As this article was posted, it was not clear which universityoffices, if any, were investigating the matter. Whittier PoliceDepartment officials contacted by the SPLC could not find a reportof the incident in their database.

The episode began last Thursday when a maintenance worker,in the newspaper office to fix a broken light table, found a problemwith the electrical socket. Upon taking it apart, he discovereda two-inch surveillance device soldered to the back of the socket,Stice said.

The paper alerted campus security and on Monday an electricianchecked all of the other sockets in the office. No more bugs werefound, but campus security called the Whittier Police Departmentlater that day. Stice said the officers, however, were reluctantto take action.

"The Whittier Police Department came in, apparently lookedat the bug and said, ‘Well there’s nothing we can do about it;yeah there’s a bug but we don’t have any evidence for this,’ "Stice said. The officers said they did not want to file a report, she added, and that such a measure would necessitate taking custodyof the device, which would probably be thrown away at a latertime.

The paper decided to keep possession of the bug. Student governmentpresident Jess Craven, whose office is located in the same buildingas the publications room, was worried that more bugs might behidden in the walls so he contacted a local private investigator,Thomas Barnes.

Barnes, a retired police detective and former military officer,decided to help the staff pro bono, "because they didn’thave any money," he said.

Barnes loaned the newspaper a scanner to check the office foradditional surveillance tools and he urged former Whittier mayorand current councilman Bob Alexander to "light a fire under"the local police.

"Most municipal police departments aren’t really on thelearning curve when it comes to bugs, electronic surveillance,computer crime," Barnes said. "You’re lucky, [for] theolder policemen, if they can even run a computer. And if theycan’t even write their own reports or run a computer, then they’resurely not going to be able to understand the implications ofa bug."

"It’s pretty serious when you start hard-wiring in becauseit means you have to have the opportunity to do it," he continued."This is not for a short-term problem, it’s (for) somebodythat wants to monitor somebody for a long period of time."

The school seems to share his concern.

"Student journalism and the free exchange of ideas issomething that the institution has supported since its inception,"university spokesperson Caye Brundage said. "So we’re veryconcerned about anything that would inhibit the ability of ourstudents to exchange ideas freely or that would create an atmospherewhere they felt they were being inhibited."

Barnes said he considers the school’s administration a suspectin the surveillance.

"Who would want to monitor [the newspaper] on a long-termbasis?" Barnes asked rhetorically. "You start to comeup with a short list of people and one of the people that usuallycomes up at the very top of the list is administration. It’s likea murder case; one of the first people you look at is somebodyrelated to the murder victim."

Brundage disagreed, "I can’t think of why I as an administratorwould want to bug the office," she said. "We are interestedin knowing what the [Quaker Campus] is doing but usuallywe’re pretty aware of what stories are being [investigated anyway]."

Barnes and Brundage both said that the bug appeared to havebeen in the wall for "a long time." Sweeps of the restof the building turned up no additional surveillance devices.

In California, electronic eavesdropping in situations wherethere is an expectation of privacy and individuals are unawareof the surveillance is a felony, Barnes said.

Whittier College is the alma mater of former President RichardNixon, who was forced to resign from office as a result of theWatergate scandal that was triggered by the bugging of DemocraticNational Committee headquarters in Washington.

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