According to new reporting from the Associated Press, the NYPD hasn't just been spying on Muslims, they've also been keeping a close eye on liberal groups under the aegis of counterterrorism. The department's Intelligence Division has kept a file on certain activists, including journalist Jordan Flaherty, who is active in pro-Palestinean causes, and labor organizer Marisa Franco, who works primarily on behalf of nannies and housekeepers — hardly a terrorist hotbed. *
Undercover officers have attended group meetings and rallies for various organizations, targeting those that, according to internal documents, were active on topics like "immigration policy, labor laws and racial profiling." (Profiling is, of course, one of the major reasons why the NYPD's clandestine counterterrorism efforts have been so controversial.) The practices are similar to those the department engaged in before the 2004 Republican National Convention — there's still an ongoing civil rights case over the handling of protests that event — but there's no event this time that provides a particular raison d'être.
Police said after the RNC that this is not surveillance, per se, but rather practice that gives them valuable information to help "anticipate" acts of violence. And the NYPD isn't exactly alone in staking out this ground.
The document provides the latest example of how, in the name of fighting terrorism, law enforcement agencies around the country have scrutinized groups that legally oppose government policies. The FBI, for instance, has collected information on anti-war demonstrators. The Maryland state police infiltrated meetings of anti-death penalty groups. Missouri counterterrorism analysts suggested that support for Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, might indicate support for violent militias — an assertion for which state officials later apologized. And Texas officials urged authorities to monitor lobbying efforts by pro Muslim-groups.
The federal Department of Homeland Security has "repeatedly urged authorities not to produce intelligence reports based simply on protest activities." However, that "simply" provides a certain amount of leeway, at least as the NYPD has seen it. The memo obtained by the AP is from April of 2008 — long before Occupy Wall Street, the most stark example in recent years of police and liberal protestors clashing. We don't know whether the Intelligence Unit has been monitoring OWS, but the memo shows that the NYPD considers such practices to be fair game.
* This post originally referred to Jordan Flaherty as John Flaherty.