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“City Police Spied Broadly Before G.O.P. Convention”
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City Police Spied Broadly Before G.O.P. Convention
By JIM DWYER / March 25, 2007
For at least a year before the 2004 Republican National Convention,
teams of undercover New York City police officers traveled to cities
across the country, Canada and Europe to conduct covert observations
of people who planned to protest at the convention, according to
police records and interviews.
From Albuquerque to Montreal, San Francisco to Miami, undercover New
York police officers attended meetings of political groups, posing as
sympathizers or fellow activists, the records show.
They made friends, shared meals, swapped e-mail messages and then
filed daily reports with the department’s Intelligence Division.
Other investigators mined Internet sites and chat rooms.
From these operations, run by the department’s “R.N.C. Intelligence
Squad,” the police identified a handful of groups and individuals who
expressed interest in creating havoc during the convention, as well
as some who used Web sites to urge or predict violence.
But potential troublemakers were hardly the only ones to end up in
the files. In hundreds of reports stamped “N.Y.P.D. Secret,” the
Intelligence Division chronicled the views and plans of people who
had no apparent intention of breaking the law, the records show.
These included members of street theater companies, church groups and
antiwar organizations, as well as environmentalists and people
opposed to the death penalty, globalization and other government
policies. Three New York City elected officials were cited in the
In at least some cases, intelligence on what appeared to be lawful
activity was shared with police departments in other cities. A police
report on an organization of artists called Bands Against Bush noted
that the group was planning concerts on Oct. 11, 2003, in New York,
Washington, Seattle, San Francisco and Boston. Between musical sets,
the report said, there would be political speeches and videos.
“Activists 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,” said the
report, dated Oct. 9, 2003. “Police departments in above listed areas
have been contacted regarding this event.”
Police records indicate that in addition to sharing information with
other police departments, New York undercover officers were active
themselves in at least 15 places outside New York — including
California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts,
Michigan, Montreal, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee,
Texas and Washington, D.C. — and in Europe.
The operation was mounted in 2003 after the Police Department,
invoking the fresh horrors of the World Trade Center attack and the
prospect of future terrorism, won greater authority from a federal
judge to investigate political organizations for criminal activity.
To date, as the boundaries of the department’s expanded powers
continue to be debated, police officials have provided only glimpses
of its intelligence-gathering.
Now, the broad outlines of the pre-convention operations are emerging
from records in federal lawsuits that were brought over mass arrests
made during the convention, and in greater detail from still-secret
reports reviewed by The New York Times. These include a sample of raw
intelligence documents and of summary digests of observations from
both the field and the department’s cyberintelligence unit.
Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the Police Department,
confirmed that the operation had been wide-ranging, and said it had
been an essential part of the preparations for the huge crowds that
came to the city during the convention.
“Detectives collected information both in-state and out-of-state to
learn in advance what was coming our way,” Mr. Browne said. When the
detectives went out of town, he said, the department usually alerted
the local authorities by telephone or in person.
Under a United States Supreme Court ruling, undercover surveillance
of political groups is generally legal, but the police in New York —
like those in many other big cities — have operated under special
limits as a result of class-action lawsuits filed over police
monitoring of civil rights and antiwar groups during the 1960s. The
limits in New York are known as the Handschu guidelines, after the
lead plaintiff, Barbara Handschu.
“All our activities were legal and were subject in advance to
Handschu review,” Mr. Browne said.
Before monitoring political activity, the police must have “some
indication of unlawful activity on the part of the individual or
organization to be investigated,” United States District Court Judge
Charles S. Haight Jr. said in a ruling last month.
Christopher Dunn, the associate legal director of the New York Civil
Liberties Union, which represents seven of the 1,806 people arrested
during the convention, said the Police Department stepped beyond the
law in its covert surveillance program.
“The police have no authority to spy on lawful political activity,
and this wide-ranging N.Y.P.D. program was wrong and illegal,” Mr.
Dunn said. “In the coming weeks, the city will be required to
disclose to us many more details about its preconvention surveillance
of groups and activists, and many will be shocked by the breadth of
the Police Department’s political surveillance operation.”
The Police Department said those complaints were overblown.
On Wednesday, lawyers for the plaintiffs in the convention lawsuits
are scheduled to begin depositions of David Cohen, the deputy police
commissioner for intelligence. Mr. Cohen, a former senior official at
the Central Intelligence Agency, was “central to the N.Y.P.D.’s
efforts to collect intelligence information prior to the R.N.C.,”
Gerald C. Smith, an assistant corporation counsel with the city Law
Department, said in a federal court filing.
Balancing Safety and Surveillance
For nearly four decades, the city, civil liberties lawyers and the
Police Department have fought in federal court over how to balance
public safety, free speech and the penetrating but potentially
disruptive force of police surveillance.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Raymond W. Kelly, who became police
commissioner in January 2002, “took the position that the N.Y.P.D.
could no longer rely on the federal government alone, and that the
department had to build an intelligence capacity worthy of the name,”
Mr. Browne said.
Mr. Cohen contended that surveillance of domestic political
activities was essential to fighting terrorism. “Given the range of
activities that may be engaged in by the members of a sleeper cell in
the long period of preparation for an act of terror, the entire
resources of the N.Y.P.D. must be available to conduct investigations
into political activity and intelligence-related issues,” Mr. Cohen
wrote in an affidavit dated Sept. 12, 2002.
In February 2003, the Police Department, with Mayor Michael R.
Bloomberg’s support, was given broad new authority by Judge Haight to
conduct such monitoring. However, a senior police official must still
determine that there is some indication of illegal activity before an
inquiry is begun.
An investigation by the Intelligence Division led to the arrest —
coincidentally, three days before the convention — of a man who spoke
about bombing the Herald Square subway station. In another
initiative, detectives were stationed in Europe and the Middle East
to quickly funnel information back to New York.
When the city was designated in February 2003 as the site of the 2004
Republican National Convention, the department had security worries —
in particular about the possibility of a truck bomb attack near
Madison Square Garden, where events would be held — and logistical
concerns about managing huge crowds, Mr. Browne said.
“We also prepared to contend with a relatively small group of self-
described anarchists who vowed to prevent delegates from
participating in the convention or otherwise disrupt the convention
by various means, including vandalism,” Mr. Browne said. “Our goal
was to safeguard delegates, demonstrators and the general public alike.”
In its preparations, the department applied the intelligence
resources that had just been strengthened for fighting terrorism to
an entirely different task: collecting information on people
participating in political protests.
In the records reviewed by The Times, some of the police intelligence
concerned people and groups bent on causing trouble, but the bulk of
the reports covered the plans and views of people with no obvious
intention of breaking the law.
By searching the Internet, investigators identified groups that were
making plans for demonstrations. Files were created on their
political causes, the criminal records, if any, of the people
involved and any plans for civil disobedience or disruptive tactics.
From the field, undercover officers filed daily accounts of their
observations on forms known as DD5s that called for descriptions of
the gatherings, the leaders and participants, and the groups’ plans.
Inside the police Intelligence Division, daily reports from both the
field and the Web were summarized in bullet format. These digests —
marked “Secret” — were circulated weekly under the heading “Key
On Jan. 6, 2004, the intelligence digest noted that an
antigentrification group in Montreal claimed responsibility for hoax
bombs that had been planted at construction sites of luxury
condominiums, stating that the purpose was to draw attention to the
homeless. The group was linked to a band of anarchist-communists
whose leader had visited New York, according to the report.
Other digests noted a planned campaign of “electronic civil
disobedience” to jam fax machines and hack into Web sites.
Participants at a conference were said to have discussed getting
inside delegates’ hotels by making hair salon appointments or dinner
reservations. At the same conference, people were reported to have
discussed disabling charter buses and trying to confuse delegates by
switching subway directional signs, or by sealing off stations with
A Syracuse peace group intended to block intersections, a report
stated. Other reports mentioned past demonstrations where various
groups used nails and ball bearings as weapons and threw balloons
filled with urine or other foul liquids.
The police also kept track of Richard Picariello, a man who had been
convicted in 1978 of politically motivated bombings in Massachusetts,
Mr. Browne said.
At the other end of the threat spectrum was Joshua Kinberg, a
graduate student at Parsons School of Design and the subject of four
pages of intelligence reports, including two pictures. For his
master’s thesis project, Mr. Kinberg devised a “wireless bicycle”
equipped with cellphone, laptop and spray tubes that could squirt
messages received over the Internet onto the sidewalk or street.
The messages were printed in water-soluble chalk, a tactic meant to
avoid a criminal mischief charge for using paint, an intelligence
report noted. Mr. Kinberg’s bicycle was “capable of transferring
activist-based messages on streets and sidewalks,” according to a
report on July 22, 2004.
“This bicycle, having been built for the sole purpose of protesting
during the R.N.C., is capable of spraying anti-R.N.C.-type messages
on surrounding streets and sidewalks, also supplying the rider with a
quick vehicle of escape,” the report said. Mr. Kinberg, then 25, was
arrested during a television interview with Ron Reagan for MSNBC’s
“Hardball” program during the convention. He was released a day
later, but his equipment was held for more than a year.
Mr. Kinberg said Friday that after his arrest, detectives with the
terrorism task force asked if he knew of any plans for violence. “I’m
an artist,” he said. “I know other artists, who make T-shirts and
He added: “There’s no reason I should have been placed on any kind of
surveillance status. It affected me, my ability to exercise free
speech, and the ability of thousands of people who were sending in
messages for the bike, to exercise their free speech.”
New Faces in Their Midst
A vast majority of several hundred reports reviewed by The Times,
including field reports and the digests, described groups that gave
no obvious sign of wrongdoing. The intelligence noted that one group,
the “Man- and Woman-in-Black Bloc,” planned to protest outside a
party at Sotheby’s for Tennessee’s Republican delegates with Johnny
Cash’s career as its theme.
The satirical performance troupe Billionaires for Bush, which
specializes in lampooning the Bush administration by dressing in
tuxedos and flapper gowns, was described in an intelligence digest on
Jan. 23, 2004.
“Billionaires for Bush is an activist group forged as a mockery of
the current president and political policies,” the report said.
“Preliminary intelligence indicates that this group is raising funds
for expansion and support of anti-R.N.C. activist organizations.”
Marco Ceglie, who performs as Monet Oliver dePlace in Billionaires
for Bush, said he had suspected that the group was under surveillance
by federal agents — not necessarily police officers — during weekly
meetings in a downtown loft and at events around the country in the
summer of 2004.
“It was a running joke that some of the new faces were 25- to 32-year-
old males asking, ‘First name, last name?’ ” Mr. Ceglie said. “Some
people didn’t care; it bothered me and a couple of other leaders, but
we didn’t want to make a big stink because we didn’t want to look
paranoid. We applied to the F.B.I. under the Freedom of Information
Act to see if there’s a file, but the answer came back that ‘we
cannot confirm or deny.’ ”
The Billionaires try to avoid provoking arrests, Mr. Ceglie said.
Others — who openly planned civil disobedience, with the expectation
of being arrested — said they assumed they were under surveillance,
but had nothing to hide. “Some of the groups were very concerned
about infiltration,” said Ed Hedemann of the War Resisters League, a
pacifist organization founded in 1923. “We weren’t. We had open
The war resisters publicly announced plans for a “die-in” at Madison
Square Garden. They were arrested two minutes after they began a
silent march from the World Trade Center site. The charges were
The sponsors of an event planned for Jan. 15, 2004, in honor of the
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday were listed in one of the
reports, which noted that it was a protest against “the R.N.C., the
war in Iraq and the Bush administration.” It mentioned that three
members of the City Council at the time, Charles Barron, Bill Perkins
and Larry B. Seabrook, “have endorsed this event.”
Others supporting it, the report said, were the New York City AIDS
Housing Network, the Arab Muslim American Foundation, Activists for
the Liberation of Palestine, Queers for Peace and Justice and the
1199 Bread and Roses Cultural Project.
Many of the 1,806 people arrested during the convention were held for
up to two days on minor offenses normally handled with a summons; the
city Law Department said the preconvention intelligence justified
detaining them all for fingerprinting.
Mr. Browne said that 18 months of preparation by the police had
allowed hundreds of thousands of people to demonstrate while also
ensuring that the Republican delegates were able to hold their
convention with relatively few disruptions.
“We attributed the successful policing of the convention to a host of
N.Y.P.D. activities leading up to the R.N.C., including 18 months of
intensive planning,” he said. “It was a great success, and despite
provocations, such as demonstrators throwing faux feces in the faces
of police officers, the N.Y.P.D. showed professionalism and restraint.”