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Op-Ed: Raising The Curtain On NYPD’s Political Spying (New York Daily News)

by Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman — A series of recent disclosures about political spying by the federal government was capped by the revelation last week that members of the New York City Police Department have been participating undercover in political demonstrations and perhaps even instigating confrontation between police officers and legitimate protesters. Just as the disclosures about federal abuses have prompted congressional leaders to demand information and to schedule oversight hearings, the recent disclosures about the NYPD justify similar actions here in New York City.

It came as no surprise that NYPD officials once again have gone too far when it comes to monitoring political activity. Anyone following the Department during Ray Kelly’s tenure knows that he has moved aggressively to build the NYPD’s intelligence-gathering capacity, and the First Amendment has proven to be no barrier to that work.

Starting in September 2002, the Department asked the federal courts to scrap a set of long-time surveillance restrictions that had been put into place following an NYPD political spying scandal that emerged during the early 1970’s. Though Commissioner Kelly justified the request as necessary to fight terrorism, it was clear to us that this move was intended to reopen the door to surveillance of lawful political activity.

Sure enough, eight months later in April 2003 the NYCLU learned and disclosed that the NYPD had started a secret protester-interrogation program. Under that program, people charged with minor offenses at demonstrations were questioned about their political affiliations and their past protest activity, with the all the information being entered into a computer database operated by the NYPD’s Intelligence Division. Though the Department quickly abandoned most of the program and destroyed the database, the disclosure was an ominous warning about possible other programs.

A glimpse of those programs came with the August 2004 Republican National Convention, the biggest protest event in modern New York City history. While many suspected surveillance would be a serious problem, the magnitude of the surveillance only became apparent when the protests started. Police officers videotaped every demonstration, capturing images of tens of thousands of lawful protesters for police files. In addition, nearly 1500 protesters arrested for minor offenses were unlawfully fingerprinted and had their fingerprints entered into law-enforcement databases, raising the concern that the Department was building a database of political activists. The Department destroyed the fingerprints when confronted by the NYCLU, but once again the message was clear: the NYPD was watching First Amendment activity.

These revelations leave many New Yorkers wondering just how far the NYPD has insinuated itself into political activity. Are they monitoring e-mail? Are they eavesdropping on phone calls? Are they secretly attending meetings? Are they instigating unlawful conduct amongst law-abiding demonstrators?

Law-enforcement agencies will never disclose these unlawful and inappropriate activities, and the public and advocates should not have to rely upon occasional leaks to learn of them. Elected officials – including the City Council and Public Advocate – need to step up and demand that the Bloomberg Administration come clean about political surveillance. And as is happening on Capitol Hill, the time has come for City Council oversight hearings. The public and First Amendment deserve no less.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
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