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New Documents Reveal: DHS spying on Peaceful Demonstrations and Activists

Poster that says, "Attention: You are being watched".

Government documents obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) through its FOIA records requests reveal that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), an agency created after the September 11 attacks under the rubric of combating terrorism, conducts daily monitoring of peaceful, lawful protests as a matter of policy.

Functioning as a secret political police force against people participating in lawful, peaceful free speech activity, the heavily redacted documents show that the DHS “Threat Management Division” directed Regional Intelligence Analysts to provide a “Daily Intelligence Briefing” that includes a category of reporting on “Peaceful Activist Demonstrations” along with “Domestic Terrorist Activity.” (p. 68)

The PCJF has obtained thousands of pages of documents pursuant to its Freedom of Information Act demands and made them available for public viewing. The newly obtained  documents show coordination and intelligence monitoring by the DHS, the FBI, the NYPD and other law enforcement agencies of “Occupy-type” protests.

The documents show the routine use of Fusion Centers for intelligence gathering on peaceful demonstrations as well as the use of DHS’ “Mega Centers” for collection of surveillance information on demonstrations.

One document also shows the DHS engaging in what appears to be “off the books” intelligence gathering as one DHS agent writes in response to a request for information on the Occupy movement in New England, “This meeting should be finishing up soon and I'll have access to a non-DHS computer that will allow me to do more looking.” (p. 6)

The first trove of FBI documents obtained by the PCJF in December 2012 exposed that the FBI treated the Occupy movement, even before the first tent went up in lower Manhattan, as a potential criminal and terrorist threat in spite of the fact that the FBI acknowledged that the OWS organizers explicitly called for peaceful protests.

The release and PCJF analysis of the documents in December received significant media attention.

The new documents reveal DHS surveillance of protests in Asheville, NC; Tampa; Ft. Lauderdale; Jacksonville; Lansing, MI; Denver; Kansas City; Los Angeles; Boston; Dallas; Houston; Minneapolis; Miami; Jersey City; Phoenix; Lincoln, Nebraska; Chicago; Salt Lake City; Detroit and others.

In preparation for planned protests in New York City on October 15, 2011, the DHS documents show coordination between federal and local authorities to use New York City’s permitting scheme to frustrate, obstruct or stop free speech activities.

In the case of the New York City protest, the documents reveal how even the most elementary exercise for conducting a lawful protest activity was the subject of information sharing and cooperation between federal and local law enforcement agencies.

This was the case when the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement sought a permit for a march with the purpose, as the DHS states, “to recognize the African slaves used to build Wall Street.”

DHS reports on how the NYPD denied the sound permit for the planned activity and how the permit application was “kicked back and forth by the City, GSA and NPS. …” (p. 35)

As the federal and local governments and law enforcement agencies engaged in a concerted, coordinated crackdown to evict Occupy protests from public spaces in the last months of 2011, DHS officials shared and coordinated strategies. For instance, the DHS District Commander in Detroit directly communicated with a law enforcement official who was “tasked with coming up with an exit strategy for us." After writing that he had heard in the news that encampments were "broken up in California and Georgia," the DHS District Commander continued, "What is the plan for the Occupy Detroit group in Grand Circus Park? I have been reporting daily and sending it up.” (p. 115)

The documents show a Department of Homeland Security that appears obsessed with the question of whether any and all protests that are being surveilled receive media attention and coverage.

Reporting within the DHS on media coverage of First Amendment protected activities, even in the smallest places, appears to be a routine part of DHS intelligence reports. None of the documents explain why media coverage of peaceful demonstrations is of interest to law enforcement or concerns “homeland security” in any way.

“This production of documents, like the FBI documents that the PCJF received in December 2012, is a window into the nationwide scope of DHS and FBI surveillance, monitoring, and reporting on peaceful protestors organizing with the Occupy movement. Taken together, the two sets of documents paint a disturbing picture of federal law enforcement agencies using their vast power in a systematic effort to surveil and disrupt peaceful demonstrations. The federal agencies’ actions were not because Occupy represented a 'terrorist threat' or a 'criminal threat' but rather because it posed a significant grassroots political challenge to the status quo,” stated Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, Executive Director of the PCJF.

“The documents are heavily redacted and represent, we believe, a fraction of what the government possesses. But these documents show that federal and local law enforcement agencies, in concert with the biggest banks on Wall Street and elsewhere in the country, conducted a massive spying program and a large-scale disruption operation against the Occupy movement.” stated Carl Messineo, Legal Director of the PCJF.

You can read the DHS - OWS documents HERE, where we have uploaded them in searchable format for public viewing.

The PCJF filed Freedom of Information Act demands with multiple federal law enforcement agencies in the fall of 2011 as the Occupy crackdown began.

Originally published on justiceonline.org.

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