Undercover NYPD police officers attended meetings of liberal political organizations and kept intelligence files on activists who planned protests around the country, according to interviews and documents.
It turns out that law enforcement has been using counterterrorism tactics to monitor even lawful activities.
The tactics used by the NYPD are similar to ones used ahead of New York’s 2004 Republican National Convention, when police monitored anti-war organizations, environmental advocates and even church groups nationwide.
Police claimed the spying was necessary to prepare for the huge crowds that were headed to the city, but documents obtained by The Associated Press revealed that the police intelligence unit continued to track political groups in 2008, after the convention ended.
In April 2008, an undercover NYPD officer attended the People’s Summit in New Orleans, a gathering of liberal groups opposed to U.S. economic policy and trade agreements between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
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 reveals the latest example of how, in the name of fighting terrorism, law enforcement agencies around the country target 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. Texas officials urged authorities to monitor lobbying efforts by pro Muslim-groups. Missouri counterterrorism analysts suggested that support for republican presidential candidate Ron Paul might indicate support for violent militias. State officials later apologized for those assertions.
By contrast, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests and in related protests in other cities, officials at the U.S. 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. 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.
The NYPD has defended its practices, saying the threat of terrorism means officers cannot wait to open an investigation until a crime is committed. Under rules governing NYPD investigations, officers are allowed to go anywhere the public can go and can prepare reports for “operational planning.”
Though the NYPD’s infiltration of political groups before the 2004 convention generated some controversy and has become an element in a lawsuit over the arrest, fingerprinting and detention of protesters, the surveillance itself has not been challenged in court.
Flaherty, who also writes for The Huffington Post, said he was not an organizer of the summit, as police wrote in the NYPD report. He said the event described by police actually was a film festival in New Orleans that same week, suggesting that the undercover officer’s duties were more widespread than described in the report.
Flaherty said he recalls introducing a film about Palestinians but spoke only briefly and does not understand why that landed him a reference in police files.
“The only threat was the threat of ideas,” he said. “I think this idea of secret police following you around is terrifying. It really has an effect of spreading fear and squashing dissent.”
Eugene Puryear, 26, an activist who attended the New Orleans summit, said he was not surprised to learn that police were monitoring it. He said it was entirely peaceful, a way to connect community organizers around the issues of racism and the rights of the poor. But he described it as a challenge to corporate power and said the NYPD probably felt threatened by it.
“From their perspective, they need to spy on peaceful groups so they’re not effective at putting out their peaceful message,” he said. “They are threatened by anything challenging the status quo.”