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Ezekiel Edwards

Espionage and the NYPD

As director of the FBI for almost 50 years, J. Edgar Hoover used his authority to monitor not just suspected criminal activity, but countless groups and individuals whose political beliefs he considered "subversive".

It appears that leading up to the 2004 Republican Convention, the NYPD took a page from Hoover's paranoid, Big Brother book on spying, using the pretext of terrorism and security to probe, infiltrate, and document dozens of lawful political organizations and protest groups.

As New York Times journalist Jim Dwyer revealed in a recent article, for at least a year before the Convention, teams of undercover NYPD officers spread out across the nation, Canada, and Europe attending meetings and posing as sympathizers or fellow activists as part of its clandestine surveillance of anticipated protestors.

Much of the NYPD's surreptitious snooping was done after a modification of the Handschu agreement, which originally arose as the result of a 1971 class-action suit and subsequent 1985 settlement under which the NYPD agreed to be monitored by an oversight body and abide by guidelines whenever investigating constitutionally protected activity. Presiding over the 1985 agreement, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Haight required that the police must have "some indication of unlawful activity on the part of the individual or organization to be investigated." The agreement was designed to protect against pervasive police surveillance, disturbance, and punishment of lawful political activity.

In 2002, after New York City requested unbridled authority to spy on completely lawful political activity, Judge Haight relaxed the Handschu parameters by relieving the City of certain obligations, such as the requirement that it maintain a paper trail documenting both its political surveillance activities and its justifications for such activities.

Once these procedural protections were no longer an impediment, the NYPD sailed full speed ahead on fishing expeditions into anti-Bush waters to document the views and activities of people who had no apparent intention of breaking the law, including members of street theater companies, church groups, environmentalists, opponents of capital punishment, and antiwar organizations, among others. Our tax dollars were spent sending undercover agents to California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montreal, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, D.C., and Europe to spy on numerous lawful organizations. The information gathered by the NYPD was not only distributed internally, but also shared with other police departments throughout the country.

Judge Haight has now found that the NYPD abused its powers under his more relaxed standards and threatened to rescind the modified agreement. A hearing is set for April 10, where the police will undoubtedly attempt to persuade Judge Haight that, in today's world, it needs continue unbridled autonomy to ensure public safety.

As Paul Chevigny, a New York University law professor and one of the lawyers who filed the 1971 class-action suit, stated in an interview with the Village Voice, "If the police win ... civil liberties will revert ... back to the 1950s. Police will have the power to infiltrate and monitor groups just because they're curious. They'll be able to keep dossiers on people and disseminate the information to anyone they want, whether it hurts somebody or not."

The NYPD justifications for expanded surveillance powers sound very similar to those of the Bush Administration when it took advantage of post 9/11 hysteria and pushed through the decidedly unpatriotic Patriot Act (notably, the only senator -- and real patriot -- to vote against the Act was Senator Russ Feingold; everyone else, including current presidential candidates Hilary Clinton and Jonathan Edwards, supported it).

Just as a government audit recently concluded that the FBI seriously abused its authority under the Patriot Act - forcing an apology from besieged Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez - so too the NYPD grossly overstepped its authorization under the modified Handschu consent decree, wasting valuable city resources while driven by McCarthy-like suspicion in infiltrating and spying on numerous lawful political groups.

It is one thing for the NYPD to monitor groups which it reasonably suspects intend to commit violence or otherwise act illegally; it is quite another when it functions as a covert agency generating and distributing dossiers of people exercising their constitutional right of free speech and political expression. The former is its rightful responsibility; the latter is wrongful recklessness.

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Posted at 7:00 AM, Apr 03, 2007 in Criminal Justice | New York | Politics | Progressives | activists
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