Undercover New York police department officers attended meetings of liberal political organizations and kept intelligence files on activists who planned protests around the US, according to interviews and documents that show how police have used counter-terrorism tactics to monitor even lawful activities.
The infiltration echoes the tactics the NYPD used in the run-up to New York’s 2004 Republican national convention, when police monitored church groups, anti-war organizations and environmental advocates nationwide. That effort was revealed by the New York Times in 2007 and in an ongoing federal civil rights lawsuit over how the NYPD treated convention protesters.
Police said the pre-convention spying was necessary to prepare for the huge, raucous crowds that were headed to the city. But documents obtained by the Associated Press show that the police department’s intelligence unit continued to keep close watch on political groups in 2008, long after the convention had passed.
In April 2008, an undercover NYPD officer travelled to New Orleans to attend the People’s Summit, a gathering of liberal groups organized around their shared opposition to US economic policy and the effect of trade agreements between the US, Canada and Mexico.
When the undercover effort was summarized for supervisors, it identified groups opposed to US immigration policy, labor laws and racial profiling. Two activists — Jordan Flaherty, a journalist, and Marisa Franco, a labor organizer for housekeepers and nannies — were mentioned by name in one of the police intelligence reports obtained by the AP.
“One workshop was led by Jordan Flaherty, former member of the International Solidarity Movement Chapter in New York City,” officers wrote in an April 25, 2008, memo to David Cohen, the NYPD’s top intelligence officer. “Mr. Flaherty is an editor and journalist of the Left Turn Magazine and was one of the main organizers of the conference. Mr. Flaherty held a discussion calling for the increase of the divestment campaign of Israel and mentioned two events related to Palestine.”
The document provides the latest example of how, in the name of fighting terrorism, law enforcement agencies around the country have scrutinized groups that legally oppose government policies. The FBI, for instance, has collected information on anti-war demonstrators. The Maryland state police infiltrated meetings of anti-death penalty groups. Missouri counterterrorism analysts suggested that support for Republican congressman Ron Paul might indicate support for violent militias — an assertion for which state officials later apologized. And Texas officials urged authorities to monitor lobbying efforts by pro Muslim-groups.
Police have good reason to want to know what to expect when protesters take to the streets. Many big cities, such as Seattle in 1999, Cincinnati in 2001 and Toledo in 2005, have seen protests turned into violent, destructive riots. Intelligence from undercover officers gives police an idea of what to expect and lets them plan accordingly.
“There was no political surveillance,” Cohen testified in the ongoing lawsuit over NYPD’s handling of protesters at the Republican convention. “This was a program designed to determine in advance the likelihood of unlawful activity or acts of violence.”
The result of those efforts, however, was that people and organizations can be cataloged in police files for discussing political topics or advocating even legal protests, not violence or criminal activity.
By contrast, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests and in related protests in other cities, officials at the US homeland security department repeatedly urged authorities not to produce intelligence reports based simply on protest activities.
“Occupy Wall Street-type protesters mostly are engaged in constitutionally protected activity,” department officials wrote in documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the website Gawker. “We maintain our longstanding position that DHS should not report on activities when the basis for reporting is political speech.”
At the NYPD, the monitoring was carried out by the Intelligence Division, a squad that operates with nearly no outside oversight and is so secretive that police said even its organizational chart is too sensitive to publish. The division has been the subject of a series of Associated Press articles that illustrated how the NYPD monitored Muslim neighborhoods, catalogued people who prayed at mosques and eavesdropped on sermons.
Read More: Guardian