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Documents show Homeland Security spies on peaceful demonstrators

Published time: April 03, 2013 04:12
David McNew / Getty Images / AFP

David McNew / Getty Images / AFP

Doubts over Department of Homeland Security surveillance are nothing new - especially after a Senate committee found “fusion centers” were breaching civil liberties. Now, documents show the agency spies on peaceful demonstrations "as a matter of policy."

The latest round of documents, acquired by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) through a Freedom of Information Act request, provide concrete evidence of routine DHS surveillance of peaceful demonstrations.

The 'fusion centers' and DHS ‘Mega Centers’ were said to be born as part of a post-9/11 bid to coordinate intelligence gathering efforts among local police, the DHS and the FBI on anti-terrorism efforts.

Now, according to the thousands of pages of documents received by the PCJF, we know that these centers did, in fact, assist in coordinating intelligence gathering - though in this case, on the Occupy movement and other free speech protests.

According to the PCJF, the new material includes details of DHS surveillance of protests in Asheville, North Carolina; Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville, Florida; Lansing and Detroit, Michigan; Denver, Colorada; Kansas City, Missouri; Los Angeles; Boston; Dallas and Houston, Texas; Minneapolis;Jersey City; Phoenix, Arizona; Lincoln, Nebraska; Chicago; Salt Lake City and elsewhere.

In addition to simple surveillance, documents also reveal a more proactive approach taken in other instances:

In preparation for planned protests in New York City on October 15, 2011, the DHS documents show coordination between federal and local authorities to use New York City’s permitting scheme to frustrate, obstruct or stop free speech activities.”

The PCJF also believes that its FOIA released documents indicate instances of “off the books” - that is, illegal - intelligence collection:

As one DHS agent writes in response to a request for information on the Occupy movement in New England, “This meeting should be finishing up soon and I'll have access to a non-DHS computer that will allow me to do more looking.”

So, is this more evidence of the DHS missing the mark on its principal mission, which is to concentrate its efforts on terrorist concerns?

According to the Senate’s bipartisan Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which released its findings following a two-year long probe of the matter, “more often than not” information collected and shared at DHS fusion centers was “unrelated to terrorism.”

The whole Senate report portrayed many of the Homeland Intelligence Reports (HIRs) circulated by DHS between its fusion centers as dubious at best:

Of the 386 unclassified HIRs that DHS eventually published over the 13-month period reviewed by the Subcommittee investigation, a review found close to 300 of them had no discernible connection to terrorists, terrorist plots or threats.”

Much like the ultimate findings of that Senate report, the PCFJ is left wondering why the DHS Threat Management Division directed Regional Intelligence Analysts to produce a “Daily Intelligence Briefing” that included a category on “Peaceful Activist Demonstrations.”

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