The NYPD Wants to Watch You

Nation's Largest Law Enforcement Agency Vies for Total Spying Power

Such skirmishes seem quaint compared to the kind of surveillance David Cohen proposes. The city has never seen a commissioner of intelligence like him, a 35-year veteran of the CIA whose career specialty was international counterintelligence and whose greatest personal disclosure to date has been his age (60, as of August 2002). His much-touted appointment by Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly was intended literally to save the city. If the NYPD succeeds in ending Handschu oversight of police surveillance, then Cohen will call the shots.

But his CIA experience is precisely what troubles Chevigny, one of the lawyers opposing the NYPD. "The CIA is dedicated to collecting intelligence purely for the sake of collecting intelligence," says Chevigny, pointing out that conforming with the U.S. Constitution is not a routine concern for the largely international agency.

Police videotaping of protesters, as at this February anti-globalization rally, could become the norm.
photo: Julia Xanthos
Police videotaping of protesters, as at this February anti-globalization rally, could become the norm.

Moreover, Chevigny and colleagues claim Cohen's court statements rely on sources known for promoting biased views about Muslims. They maintain that he lifted language in his affidavit directly from a published essay, "The Danger Within: Militant Islam in America," by New York Post columnist and think tank pundit Daniel Pipes, who espouses conservative—some say anti-Arab—politics regarding the Middle East. Pipes founded the McCarthy-esque Web site, which encourages the monitoring of college professors and others who criticize U.S. policy in the Middle East and posts their names. Another source Cohen cites as reporting that "extremist ideology has taken over more than 80 percent" of U.S. mosques is actually untrustworthy and ideologically motivated himself, opposing lawyers argue.

Politics can be a tremendous factor in police intelligence decisions, judging from history old and new. In past decades police extensively surveilled a wide spectrum of lawful, but antiestablishment, dissent. And contemporary police surveillance, according to what has been made public, most often targets people of color, critics of police misconduct, and leftists.

Even well-intentioned agents can make mistakes. A number of activists and attorneys showed the Voice old surveillance files they had obtained from the NYPD that have basic facts wrong. A former Black Panther's file lists people as associates of his when they were not. Morales, the former Young Lord, has records that show investigators had misidentified her home address.

In 1987, when he was executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, lawyer Norman Siegel obtained documents through a Handschu complaint that show not only that undercover cops infiltrated half a dozen meetings of civil rights activists, but also that they were not reliably observant. One memo identifies Siegel as a representative of the "Chinese Progressive Association." Says Siegel, "Up until that time I had joked about this stuff, saying, 'I don't care if the cops keep a scrapbook on me. I can give it to my grandchildren and they'll know granddaddy was a troublemaker.' But sometimes they don't get it right. They may not get the nuances, and in your dossier there's information on you that's inaccurate."

Inaccuracies today could have disastrous results. Police have argued they need greater latitude in surveillance so they can send undercover informants into mosques and Muslim groups to root out terrorists. Such information-gathering has high stakes in a time when the U.S. president has the power—and proven willingness—unilaterally to label U.S. citizens "enemy combatants," based on secret information, and order them imprisoned indefinitely. And the White House recently said that the president can also unilaterally authorize the CIA to assassinate U.S. citizens if they are deemed to be agents of Al Qaeda.

A more predictable consequence, should the NYPD succeed in erasing restrictions on spying, is the icy effect it will have on legal protest. "It's been hard enough to bring out community members who've been affected" by post-September 11 policies targeting Middle Eastern immigrants, says Monami Maulik of Desis Rising Up and Moving, a Queens-based group organizing for South Asian immigrant rights. If police can legitimately investigate protesters, "it's going to get much more difficult for them to go public," she says, claiming that two immigrant rights activists she knows have already been detained by the INS.

More mainstream activists would have reason to fear as well, says Michael Ratner, vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. As a student organizer at Columbia University in the 1960s, he recalls, "If I wanted to get a wider circle of people out to a protest, I wasn't going to get the law students if there was a Red Squad there. We had one guy who was kept from the bar for a year. And if you were applying for a municipal job, there wasn't going to be a wall between the Red Squad and the municipal offices."

The price of uncontrolled police surveillance is not just stifled activism but the losses in social progress that activism achieves, says Morales, the former Young Lord. "It wasn't just the Lords" who lost ground, she says, but "a whole movement that was beginning to be able to impact policy in a lot of areas—from civil rights to war to power for women."

ONE OF THE BLOCKBUSTER CASES OF Red Squad abuse involved Robert Collier, a Black Panther who weathered two sensational trials in the 1960s during which extensive police infiltration was revealed. But it wasn't until a still later trial that Collier's life became an enduring illustration of how freewheeling police surveillance can skewer the innocent.

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