Documents Show NYPD Spied on Liberal Political Groups

Allison Kilkenny

The Associated Press recently obtained documents showing undercover NYPD officers attended meetings of liberal political groups and kept intelligence files on activists who planned protests around the country.

The tactic mirrors the NYPD’s behavior in the run-up to New York’s 2004 Republican National Convention when police monitored church groups, anti-war organizations and environmental advocates, a story broken by The New York Times back in 2007.

Police claimed at the time that spying was necessary to prepare for the huge, rowdy crowds heading to the city, but the documents obtained by the AP show the monitoring continued into 2008, long after the convention had ended.

The AP’s report outlines how the NYPD spied on activists with varying social concerns, such as opposing U.S. economic and immigration policies, and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

In April 2008, an undercover NYPD officer traveled to New Orleans to attend the People’s Summit, a gathering of liberal groups organized around their shared opposition to U.S. economic policy and the effect of trade agreements between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

When the undercover effort was summarized for supervisors, it identified groups opposed to U.S. 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.”

In its report, the AP goes on to mention that at the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests, officials at the U.S. Homeland Security Department repeatedly urged authorities not to produce intelligence reports based on political 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.”

But documents obtained by Rolling Stone in late February show the DHS scoured OWS-related Twitter feeds for information and the report includes a special feature on what it calls Occupy’s social media and IT usage,” complete with interactive maps of protests and gatherings nationwide (this part was lifted directly from the Daily Kos).

Most worryingly, the DHS warns large numbers and support from groups like Anonymous increase the risk for potential incidents and enhance the potential security risk to critical infrastructure,” even though, as the DHS notes itself, OWS protesters have a peaceful nature.”

The continued expansion of these protests also places an increasingly heavy burden on law enforcement and movement organizers to control protesters,” the DHS report states.

Again, here the DHS is talking about the need to control” what it describes as peaceful” individuals.

The main concern in the documents appears to be maintaining a business-friendly environment for Wall Street.

As the primary target of the demonstrations, financial services stands the sector most impacted by the OWS protests. Due to the location of the protests in major metropolitan areas, heightened and continuous situational awareness for security personnel across all CI sectors is encouraged.”

Business Insider notes that this memo was posted to DHS’s Tripwire intelligence sharing database reportedly without having been cleared, and was quickly taken down after. However, a link to the report was also included in an email briefing from the Domestic Security Alliance Council, a strategic intelligence partnership between DHS and the FBI.

Officials within the DHS seem to have realized how damaging it would be if the public knew they were tracking the activities of a peaceful protest group operating within the law.

This could be quite unfortunate,” one email reads. I thought IP had withdrawn this piece. We may need DSAC to immediately withdraw their email and take it off DSAC’s portal if it is posted there.”

Truthout filed a FOIA request with DHS and the FBI received hundreds of pages of Occupy-related documents, though the FBI claims it is unable to identify main file records responsive to the FOIA” relating to OWS.

In October, Adrian Chen broke a story about security consultant Thomas Ryan who waged a campaign to infiltrate and discredit the movement, forwarding emails to contacts at the NYPD and FBI, including special agent Jordan T. Loyd, a member of the FBI’s New York-based cyber security team. (photo via Gawker)

A DHS officials maintains the department holds standard coordination calls and face-to-face meetings with our partners to ensure that the proper resources are available for operations such as street closures, etc.”

Truthout notes there appears to be a lack of clarity” within DHS about its role in the surveillance and eviction of Occupy movements.

In a set of memos written less than a month after the first Occupy protests on September 17, 2011, the discussion is centred around a threat assessment on a planned protest by Occupy Pittsburgh on October 15, 2011. A DHA employee notes the assessment may be infringing on protected First Amendment activity.

There is attached to this email a threat bulletin being disseminated by the Office of Emergency Management in Pittsburgh in which it discusses the threat posed by the Occupy Pittsburgh campaign and the hackers group Anonymous…. Both myself and [redacted] (IO deployed to the PACIC [Pennsylvania Criminal Intelligence] Center in Harrisburg) are somewhat concerned that several items contained in this Intel Bulletin might be advocating surveillance and other countermeasures to be employed against activities protected under the 1st amendment. Would either one or both of you be able to see what could be developed from this document that (redacted) could take back to the Intel staff that produced this so that in the future they have a greater awareness of how to develop intelligence assessments that don’t undermine constitutionally protected speech and assembly rights?

Ten days later, Shala Byers with the Intelligence Coordination Branch of DHS responds, effectively passing the buck on the monitoring question. Byers states that clearly Occupy Pittsburgh’s activities are protected by the First Amendment, but also, take the question elsewhere.

We have received a number of questions and requests for information regarding Occupy Wall Street from a number of component partners and intelligence officers. Recognizing that this is a first amendment protected activity, we have recommended (on an ad hoc basis when we receive requests) that our Intelligence Officers refer inquiries to fusion centers and avoid the topic altogether.

A senior privacy analyst named J. Scott Matthews then responds, again reiterating the protected activities of Occupy, but also laying down guidelines for limited reporting or surveillance. 

There are certainly some circumstances that may allow limited reporting on behavior that is coincident and collated with Occupy Wall Street’ like protests,” Matthews writes, failing to define the scope of that reporting”.

Truthout reports that even after these guidelines were issued, the intelligence-gathering branch with the DHS, I&A (Intelligence and Analysis) requested to do a product on Occupy Wall Street,” according to an email from October 242011.

A DHS employee responds, I tend to agree that it would be difficult to clear on that, given that any concerns out of the movement thus far are local matters: reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on protects, health and safety issues etc.”

Mainly, the documents received by Truthout contain hundreds of pages of DHS discussing the media’s discussion of its activities - alleged and real. The issue of an Examiner article that alleged local police agencies received tactic and planning advice from national agencies set off a snowballing email exchange among officials.

A press release states that DHS is only involved if the protest takes place on federal property, though there is an exception: the standard coordination calls and face-to-face meetings” noted above.

A person named Brent Colburn responds to the thread, calling federal involvement rare.”

Another individual, Robert M. Davis, sent an internal email earlier saying FPS will assist local authorities upon request with things like road closures, etc. DC, for instance, may require our assistance tomorrow with Key Bridge activities, etc.”

The Key Bridge protest took place Nov. 17 on a major bridge in the capitol.

Colburn sends an inquiry in a separate thread: Triple checking on this - there hasn’t been any connection except for Portland?”

The documents received by Truthout don’t include an answer to his question.

Eric Neuschaefer, a DHS FOIA program specialist, said the agency expects to release a second set of OWS-related documents to Truthout sometime in mid-April.

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Allison Kilkenny is an In These Times Staff Writer and the co-host of the critically acclaimed radio show Citizen Radio. Her blog for In These Times, Uprising, focuses on efforts around the world to address the global economic crisis.
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