Privacy SOS

DHS: we don’t spy on activists! NYPD: we do!

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"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."

So says Shayla Byers, who works for DHS' Intelligence Coordination Branch. Kick the can down to the states and locals, she seems to be saying: this is a touchy subject, and we don't want to touch it.

The Truthout documents from DHS have revealed that the agency has been fielding many requests for information on Occupy from state and local police at their mini-spy shops, "fusion centers," nationwide. If we are to believe Shayla Byers, the Goliath spy agency is not biting and is instead more than happy to pass the hot potato of political monitoring down to the locals. (Mostly.) 

And while we can't be sure that DHS is telling the truth about its spying, we know that locals have been pursuing dissidents over the past ten years. State and local police have gotten caught with their eyes on activists far too many times since the federal government funded the creation of "fusion" spy centers in the states. Part and parcel of this localization of spying efforts has been the federal government's conflation of dissent with terrorism. Examples of improper state and local spying on activists are many and diverse.

Perhaps the most ridiculous example of this was the Pennsylvania fusion center's contracting out of spying on anti-fracking activists. Information about the activists was actually fed to the target of their protests, the energy company. One of the results of this fracas was that environmental activist and famous actor Mark Ruffalo was put on a 'no fly' list. But there are many, many other such examples, involving ordinary people, not simply famous actors. 

One of those stories comes to us today, as the AP gives us yet further proof of NYPD bad behavior. The video above shows evidence of NYPD spying on dissident groups as far from New York City as New Orleans. That should help explain why we, the ACLU of Massachusetts, have been so concerned about the NYPD: the NYPD seems to be concerned with those of us outside New York City.

But federal spying is only getting more intense, contrary to the sense we get from the initial DHS documents. The few barriers that had existed between the many federal intelligence gathering agencies (including the military, the CIA, NSA, DHS, the FBI and more) have now been completely broken down. If the FBI is spying on Occupy, DHS will have access to all of that data, and vise versa. 

And it's clear that the FBI is into political monitoring. Anyone who has paid any attention to history and politics in the United States is aware of the FBI's historic and ongoing criminalization of and improper spying on dissent. Little appears to have changed in that regard since the bad days of the McCarthyite 1950s.

These agencies will also have access to the cornucopia of "intelligence" (read: your emails and text messages and other communications) sucked up by the NSA. Given James Bamford's explosive revelations about the NSA's "turnkey totalitarian state" waiting in the wings, in the Utah desert, this is troublesome in the extreme.

DHS probably thinks that the documents it released to Truthout thus far make it look pretty good in comparison to the FBI and NSA. After all, there are numerous emails in these disclosed files that describe DHS officers' concerns about spying on protected First Amendment speech.

But if the state and local spy centers — set up and funded by DHS — are any indication of the mega-agency's operations in the field of Stasi spying, we haven't heard the whole story yet. Stay tuned for more as further documents pour in to Truthout.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.