The NYPD has defended its efforts, 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.”
Before the terrorist attacks of September 2001, infiltrating political groups was one of the most tightly controlled powers the NYPD could use. Such investigations were restricted by a longstanding court order in a lawsuit over the NYPD’s spying on protest groups in the 1960s.
After the attacks, Cohen told a federal judge that, to keep the city safe, police must be allowed to open investigations before there’s evidence of a crime. A federal judge agreed and relaxed the rules.
Since then, police have monitored not only suspected terrorists but also entire Muslim neighborhoods, mosques, restaurants and law-abiding protesters.
Keeping tabs on planned demonstrations is a key function of Cohen’s division. Investigators with his Cyber Intelligence Unit monitor websites of activist groups, and undercover officers put themselves on email distribution lists for upcoming events. Plainclothes officers collect fliers on public demonstrations. Officers and informants infiltrate the groups and attend rallies, parades and marches.
Intelligence analysts take all this information and distill it into summaries for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s daily briefing, documents show.
The April 2008 memo offers an unusually candid view of how political monitoring fit into the NYPD’s larger, post-9/11 intelligence mission. As the AP has reported previously, Cohen’s unit has transformed the NYPD into one of the most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies in the United States, one that infiltrated Muslim student groups, monitored their websites and used informants as listening posts inside mosques.
Along with the political monitoring, the document describes plans to use informants to monitor mosques for conversations about the imminent verdict in the trial of three NYPD officers charged in the 2006 shooting death of Sean Bell, an unarmed man who died in a hail of gunfire. Police were worried about how the black community, particularly the New Black Panther Party, would respond to the verdict, according to this and other documents obtained by the AP.
The document also contained details of a whitewater rafting trip that an undercover officer attended with Muslim students from City College New York.
“The group prayed at least four times a day, and much of the conversation was spent discussing Islam and was religious in nature,” the report reads.
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.