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Op-Ed: The Damage Done by the NYPD’s Political Spying (New York Daily News)

By Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman — What do Alicia Keys, New York City Anarchist Tribes, Billionaires for Bush, Protest Warriors, Judson Memorial Church, RNC Shut Down Coalition, Code Pink and Grandmothers Against the War have in common? They all appear in documents released this month detailing one portion of a wide-ranging political surveillance operation run by the NYPD in preparation for the 2004 Republican National Convention.

The NYPD documents, which emerged from lawsuits challenging police tactics during the convention, indicate that some groups spied on by the police posed a genuine threat. For instance, according to the documents, at earlier demonstrations participants in something called Black Bloc had used gas masks, Molotov cocktails, rocks, slingshots and bags of urine to create havoc.

Other groups, however, were simply involved in entirely lawful – indeed, constitutionally protected – political activity. The very first entry in the intelligence reports, for example, is about “Bands Against Bush” and political concerts scheduled to take place in 10 cities around the country. That entry discloses that “[a]ctivists are showing a well-organized network made up of anti-Bush sentiment; the mixing of music and political rhetoric indicates sophisticated organizing skills with a specific agenda.”

This lumping of lawful political activity with potentially criminal acts is dangerous. We do not and never have objected to the police investigating groups planning illegal activity, whether those groups are political or otherwise. The First Amendment is not a license to break the law.

But we do object to police surveillance of political activity that is entirely lawful. What legitimate reason could the NYPD have for tracking groups “showing a well-organized network made up of anti-Bush sentiment”? Spying on such political activity smacks of Iron Curtain tactics and does nothing to advance public safety. With all the demands on the police department, one can only wonder why it would devote precious resources to chasing around law-abiding activists.

Some suggest the NYPD’s surveillance activities should not be a cause for alarm because the department was simply perusing Web sites – but this is wrong for two reasons. First, the surveillance went far beyond that, to include undercover operations around the country that almost certainly involved the infiltration of political groups. Second, even the portion of the operation that involved the review of Web sites and online communities raises serious concerns because the department went beyond looking at publicly available sources to compiling files about groups doing nothing other than engaging in lawful political activity. Creating police dossiers about political groups and activists invites abuse.

And there is more to come. The just-released documents come from only one part of the surveillance operation, and the department is trying hard to hide materials generated by the rest of the program. Those materials likely include extensive undercover reports about political activity.

If the NYPD is so proud of its actions and those materials show that protesters posed a genuine and widespread threat, why is the city fighting so hard to keep them secret?

Dunn is the associate legal director and Lieberman the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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