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New York City police surveillance criticized

The Baltimore Sun

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 "RNC 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 "NYPD 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 anti-war 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 reports.

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 that 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," 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 U.S. 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 anti-war 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," 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," U.S. District 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 NYPD program was wrong and illegal," Dunn said. "In the coming weeks, the city will be required to disclose to us many more details about its pre-convention surveillance of groups and activists, and many will be shocked by the breadth of the Police Department's political surveillance operation."

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, the site of the convention - and logistical concerns relating to managing huge crowds, 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," Browne said.

In its preparations, the department applied the intelligence resources strengthened for fighting terrorism to an entirely different context: collecting information on people participating in political protests.

In the records reviewed by The Times, the police intelligence did describe 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.

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.

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