In April, San Francisco police investigators searched two California offices of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'nai B'rith, a respected civil rights organization that they suspected had been secretly monitoring the activities of thousands of political activists.

They left with boxes of files a prosecutor later described in court as "contraband," including leaked copies of confidential law enforcement reports, fingerprint cards, driver's license photographs and individual criminal histories drawn from police records.

They also seized pink copies of internal reports signed "Cal," a code name, police had been told, for San Francisco art collector Roy H. Bullock. When police questioned him, Bullock said he had worked for 32 years as one of the ADL's chief intelligence gatherers on the West Coast, carefully following the movements of Skinheads, white supremacists, Arab Americans and critics of the Israeli government. While the ADL praises Bullock's contributions, its officials say he operated as an independent contractor. He was "a freelancer for ADL for a number of years," ADL lawyer Barbara Wahl said.

But the probe of Bullock's undercover activities led investigators to the ADL's Bay Area office, where he maintained a desk, and to the Los Angeles office, which often received his information. When the results of the searches were spelled out in a detailed court affidavit and publicized, the ADL found itself involved in a heated debate within the civil rights community over its longtime intelligence-gathering tactics.

It also became a focus of an on-going criminal investigation by the San Francisco District Attorney's Office that branched from Bullock's California activities into a broader look at the ADL's nationwide fact-finding operation, long considered the heart of its fight against antisemitism in the United States.

Prosecutors are prepared to present evidence to a grand jury Nov. 3 concerning allegations that ADL officials conspired to obtain legally confidential police material on individual political activists, a felony in California. State officials also have contended in court documents that the ADL violated state tax laws over a period of years by funneling a total of $168,375 in payments to Bullock through a lawyer.

The ADL, which has won praise from nine successive U.S. presidents for its dogged and sometimes dangerous efforts to combat bigotry, has in recent months waged an aggressive public relations campaign to try to persuade news organizations and ADL supporters to disregard the evidence and be skeptical of the motivations of the San Francisco District Attorney's Office.

"When it's all over and maybe even sooner we're going to present you with a publication called 'The Big Lie,' " said ADL national director Abraham H. Foxman, who raised his voice in an interview to express outrage over questions about ADL's motives. ". . . We do not spy. Okay? I don't care which definition you use. And anybody who says that the ADL spies is engaged in a lie, is engaged in trying to destroy what it is that we do."

But the ADL's own documents and evidence made public in the San Francisco case suggest that Bullock was not engaged in occasional inquiries for the ADL. Rather, Bullock infiltrated political groups in San Francisco that were of continuing interest to the ADL and then submitted detailed reports that contained confidential police information, court records show.

Thus far, former San Francisco police intelligence officer Thomas Gerard has been charged in a complaint alleging that he gave confidential police information to Bullock. Gerard has pleaded not guilty. But prosecutors are examining whether Bullock was part of a nationwide ADL network of "undercover operatives" who regularly traded information with police and federal law enforcement agencies. Bullock, who has not been charged, declined to be interviewed.

Investigators have questioned police, including some in the Washington region, about free ADL-sponsored trips to Israel and whether they were used as favors to cooperative police officers. ADL representatives argue that sponsoring such visits is part of its role as an "advocate for Israel" and that the trips foster understanding of the Middle East.

Prosecutors contend in court documents that the ADL had a network of friendly officers turning over confidential data. They also say the ADL has intelligence gatherers such as Bullock stationed in other cities. "In Chicago, there is an ex-police officer named Chi-3. In St. Louis there is Ironsides. In Atlanta, there is an Arab speaking man named Flipper. . . . There are other California code named employees such as Scout, Scumbag and Hot Spurs," an affidavit based on information from an ADL employee said. The ADL acknowledged that there are other field investigators like Bullock but insists their efforts are legal and benign.

The investigation began last year after the FBI obtained evidence that Bullock and Gerard sold information on anti-apartheid activists to intelligence agents of the South African government. Bullock said he gathered such information for the ADL, although the ADL says it was unaware of his dealings with the South Africans. He and Gerard split about $15,000 in fees from the South African government, court records show.

FBI agents extensively interrogated Bullock but did not file charges; no state secrets had been involved. Instead, they notified the San Francisco Police of Bullock's access to law enforcement records.

Police seized Bullock's home computer files and found a database of confidential information that traced back to Gerard and other police officers as well as a box of old police intelligence files. San Francisco police then conducted a second interrogation of Bullock that produced a detailed, first-person account of a life lived in the shadows of a subterranean Arab-Israeli conflict being waged on American soil.

"I was an investigator for the ADL," Bullock explained. "I investigated any and all antidemocratic movements." His job, he told San Francisco police, was to gather "political intelligence" about groups that the ADL considered antisemitic or anti-Israel.

History of Information Sharing With Israel

Bullock's attorney turned over to investigators an FBI intelligence report on the Nation of Islam whose disappearance had caused alarm at the bureau. The search of ADL offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles turned up more FBI materials, including a three-volume report on a Middle East terrorist group. Moreover, Bullock's written reports to the ADL, which he said were channeled across the country, contained legally confidential material that he attributed to "official friends," the ADL's euphemism for law enforcement officers.

While denying that the ADL spies on individuals, Foxman testily argued in an interview that the organization has a right to do whatever it must within the law to combat antisemitism. "What are they {the FBI volumes} doing in our files?" Foxman said. "Because they belong in our files. . . . because somebody shared it with us."

Since news of the investigation broke, a group of Arab Americans listed in the ADL's files has charged in a civil lawsuit that the ADL invaded the Arab Americans' privacy with its "massive spying operation" and forwarded confidential information to the governments of Israel and South Africa.

Evidence of the ADL's information sharing with the Israeli government is largely historical. In 1961, former ADL national director Benjamin R. Epstein wrote to a B'nai B'rith official that the ADL was following Arab diplomats and activists in America and sharing its information with the governments of Israel and the United States.

In his 1988 autobiography, ADL general counsel Arnold Forster, who oversaw the fact-finding operation, described how "fact-finding and counteraction became the heart of the organization." He also wrote that he was often a "source" for the Mossad, Israel's CIA, in tracking down suspected Nazi war criminals.

"ADL does not act as an agent of Israel," said Foxman, bristling at the charge. He called such questions about ADL's conduct "antisemitism. . . . I'm sorry if it offends some people. This is far reaching. We see a conspiracy. I see a conspiracy. It's out there . . . it's proved itself every day."

Underlying the San Francisco case is a gradual evolution in the ADL's mission. Soon after the organization was founded, the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a leader of the Atlanta chapter of the Jewish fraternal organization B'nai B'rith, caused the group to focus much of its energy on protecting the physical safety of Jews by publicly exposing bigotry and forcing officials to act.

Organized intelligence gathering was a natural outgrowth. In the 1930s, the ADL "undertook a massive research operation which uncovered the interlocking directorates of hate groups, their links to Hitler's Germany and other centers of Nazi propaganda," according to an ADL account. In the civil rights era, it worked in concert with the FBI to combat the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1975, the ADL issued a report entitled "Target U.S.A: The Arab Propaganda Offensive" that described how mainstream Arab-American groups were allied with non-Arab "apologists" such as "some church people, clergy and lay, a number of university-based intellectuals and scholars, plus elements in the liberal community . . . some groups formerly active in the antiwar movement during the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, plus the extreme Left, Old and New, segments of the political Far Right, and the traditional anti-Jewish hate fringe . . . and a small number of anti-Israel, anti-Zionist Jews."

Once this broad rationale took hold, the civil rights watchdog increasingly devoted its investigative apparatus to "counteracting" what it calls "anti-Israel" sentiment or "the new antisemitism" in the United States.

In practice, this means the ADL keeps track of politically active Americans or groups that repeatedly criticize Israel or lobby for Palestinian rights. The ADL argues that any threat to Israel's "image" in America endangers the $3 billion annual package of U.S. military and economic aid to Israel and thereby jeopardizes the long-term fate of all Jews.

"I understand that it's difficult for other people to understand," said Foxman, but a "viable, safe, secure haven" in Israel is "part and parcel of the safety and security and survival of the Jewish people."

Bullock's work -- as described in the lengthy transcripts of his interviews with police and in FBI summaries of his statements -- tracks the shift in the ADL's emphasis. In the 1960s and 1970s, he focused primarily on traditional organized antisemitic extremist organizations. But during the 1980s, Bullock said he increasingly focused on groups critical of Israeli policies, such as anti-apartheid groups, but not overtly antisemitic.

Bullock's computer database grew to include more than 10,000 names of individuals and hundreds of political, social and business groups, including some that had worked closely with the ADL. But his primary concentration was on groups he labeled "Right," "Arabs," "Pinkos," and "Skins." He acknowledged sharing his information with law enforcement, a fact investigators confirmed when they searched Gerard's police department files and found duplicates of Bullock's files. Bullock told police that ADL officials knew about his database.

Bullock said he got "checks regular once-a-week" from the ADL that were paid through Los Angeles attorney Bruce Hochman. Hochman said in an interview that he paid Bullock at the ADL's request to protect the undercover role.

Bullock told police that he met Gerard at a meeting at the San Francisco ADL office and that executive director Richard Hirschhaut was aware that Gerard was a key source.

The ADL dispatched Bullock on special assignments to Chicago and Germany. For a particularly sensitive operation he said he got the approval of Irwin Suall, national director of fact finding. Both officials have come under scrutiny in the investigation. Suall and Hirschhaut declined comment.

Bullock told police he was the ADL's "resident expert" on antisemitism in San Francisco and maintained the ADL office files. He said he was the only "fact finder, spy, whatever you want to call me, on the West Coast."

Bullock monitored several of the groups profiled in the ADL's published reports, occasional exposes that are a blend of advocacy journalism and intelligence briefings. In 1987, Bullock volunteered to work on a march of the Mobilization for Jobs, Peace and Justice, a coalition of liberal groups that included the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), according to director Carl Finamore.

"He {Bullock} just showed up at our office one day to help. He comes in, he's friendly, insinuates himself, asserts himself, tells a little bit about his personal background to get you interested in him as a human being, makes suggestions," Finamore said.

Some 'Material Is Clearly Contraband'

The ADL wanted information on the ADC, a group that challenges defamatory Arab stereotypes, because it considered the organization a "highly active pro-PLO propaganda group." An ADL report said the ADC's members favor "political support for suspected PLO terrorists residing in the U.S."

Bullock also volunteered at the ADC's San Francisco Bay Area chapter, where he carried banners, helped with crowd control during demonstrations and took photographs, according to Osama Doumani, who at the time served as the ADC's regional director. "He would come to my office and he would hug me in a comradely fashion and volunteer for work. He wanted to have a presence whenever we had something important," he said.

The ADL has labored to draw a distinction between Bullock's more controversial activities and work he was authorized to do for ADL, leaving investigators largely unconvinced.

In a court affidavit, San Francisco Police Inspector Ronald Roth said that based on a comparison of Bullock's database with the seized ADL records, "It is believed that Bullock's databases are in fact the ADL databases."

Assistant District Attorney Thomas Dwyer argued in court that "some of that {ADL} material is clearly contraband." The ADL, he said, does not "have the right to rap sheet photographs; they don't have the right to people's fingerprint cards."

But Foxman and other ADL officials say its fact finders basically employ the methods of investigative journalists, taking notes at public meetings, culling published material for facts, and cultivating law enforcement sources, in order to publish important exposes about bigotry and prejudice.

"It's a First Amendment right," Foxman said. "We have a right to gather information and to disseminate it. . . . We look at pieces. We look at individuals. We look at ideologies."

-- ABRAHAM H. FOXMAN, national director,

Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith