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When Activists Are Terrorists

Did the New York Police Department spy on peaceful groups and citizens trying to exercise their constitutional right to protest the renomination of President Bush at the Republican National Convention in the summer of 2004? This is what civil liberties groups allege, and what the NYPD denies. Who is right?

The issue is at the heart of several interrelated suits being adjudicated in federal district courts in New York, many of them filed on behalf of the 1,800 protesters who were arrested during the largest protest at a political convention in American history. In its complaints, the New York Civil Liberties Union, which represents seven of those arrested, accuses the department of having violated the law by its mass arrests, holding people in protracted custody for minor violations, and fingerprinting those detained.

While the complaints themselves do not accuse the police of monitoring citizens for their political views, Christopher Dunn, the civil liberties group's associate legal director, said that there were "many indications" that the police had investigated people who posed no threat either to the city or the convention. The allegation was echoed in a front-page, 2,500-word article that led the New York Times in late March. Based partly on his review of more than 600 pages of the NYPD's still-secret "raw intelligence documents" and "summary digests of observations from both the field and the department's cyberintelligence unit," reporter Jim Dwyer concluded that the NYPD's "R.N.C. Intelligence Squad" had chronicled the views and plans of people who had "no apparent intention of breaking the law."

Stung by the criticism, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, David Cohen, the deputy police commissioner for intelligence, and Paul J. Browne, the NYPD press spokesman, outlined in interviews last week the nature of the police's concerns, its conduct, and the goals of its intelligence surveillance effort that they told the Times and still argue enabled some 800,000 people to protest peacefully and helped keep New York safe. "The department was indifferent to the political views of the attendees," said Mr. Cohen, a former senior official at the Central Intelligence Agency. "The pre-convention surveillance was aimed solely at maintaining civil order."

The outcome of these disputes has important ramifications, and not just for New York's efforts to identify and prevent terrorist and other threats to the city. It also risks tarnishing what the NYPD thinks should be regarded as a tremendous achievement.

What Mr. Cohen called the "co-mingled threat" of "terrorism, anarchist violence and unlawful civil disobedience" drove both the surveillance program and the policies of mass arrests and blanket fingerprinting. He said that there was no special "squad" to provide political intelligence for the convention, as the Times reported.

The 600-plus pages of still-secret intelligence documents that this reporter has also reviewed do list numerous peaceful organizations and individuals planning to attend the protests, including as the Times accurately noted, three New York City elected officials, street theater companies, church groups and antiwar organizations, environmentalists, and people opposed to the death penalty and other Republican policies. The documents also chronicle some seemingly innocuous planning for the protests -- such as the concerts being held in several cities by the satirical performance troop, Billionaires for Bush -- as well as legal training and other services that similar groups and individuals were providing, or planning to provide, protesters.

But the material this reporter read does not show that the police monitored such peaceful groups and individuals because they opposed their political views, and the police say groups like "Billionaires for Bush" were never infiltrated. Rather, the intelligence documents appear focused mainly on estimating the number and motivations of people who were planning to attend the convention, as well as potential threats to the gathering, its delegates and the police.

The raw intelligence files also focus on often innovative nonviolent and violent disruption techniques that were discussed at public meetings and on the Internet by more than 18 groups and coalitions planning protests at the convention, several of which have histories of violent activity at earlier demonstrations.

The courts will eventually decide whether such surveillance and policies derived from it were legal and appropriate. But my reading of the 600 pages of intelligence reports, coupled with interviews of senior police officials, a review of speeches, and documents involving the law suits, suggests that the department's surveillance effort was largely threat-driven. It was prompted by legitimate concerns about how to assure the safety of both New Yorkers and protestors, 65% of whom came from outside the state.

While the line between appropriate and illegal surveillance of political groups is not always obvious or as a matter of law clearly drawn, the police complain that the department's actions have not been framed in the context of the threat New York was facing.

In an interview, Mr. Cohen argued, for instance, that a balanced appraisal of the city's surveillance effort should have emphasized the "ongoing and continuous threat" confronting the police. Since 9/11, he said, the city has experienced or prevented 11 separate terrorist plots, roughly two a year -- beginning with the still-unsolved anthrax letter attacks of October, 2001, in which five people died (one in Manhattan), to the thwarting of a plot in July 2006 to destroy the PATH subway linking New Jersey to Lower Manhattan and blow up the retaining wall at Ground Zero to flood lower Manhattan.

The 18-month period between the selection of New York and the convention itself was "the most intense threat period of the post September 11 era to date," Mr. Cohen said. Six terrorist attacks by al Qaeda-related or inspired groups in far-flung Casablanca, Jakarta, Istanbul, Moscow and Madrid killed nearly 300 people and wounded more than 3,000 during that period.

The police also had to expect and prepare for the worst because of the violence surrounding earlier large protests since 1999. "Inadequate advance understanding, or knowledge of the plans and intentions of those prepared to commit violence, undermined earlier efforts to contain disruptions, Mr. Cohen said. At Seattle's WTO protest in 1999, for instance, a relatively small group of activists among crowds of at least 50,000 people triggered grotesque mayhem -- violent confrontations with the police, $3 million in property damage, and numerous injuries and arrests.

Mr. Cohen said, and his intelligence files suggest, that the police were concerned about four categories of protestors: anarchists and others openly committed to violently shutting down the city; a second, far-larger group intent on acts of civil disobedience to disrupt proceedings through peaceful if illegal means; individuals with criminal histories embedded in both these groups; and people who had previously tried to hide or alter their identities when arrested. It was the need to ascertain true identities, he said, that led to the decision to fingerprint those arrested. This, in turn, required the police to arrest demonstrators who were violating the law, rather than give them summonses, since people are fingerprinted only after an arrest.

Eight weeks before the convention, activists designated Aug. 31, 2004, in online postings as a day for civil disorder, the "Day of Chaos," or "A-31." Groups of anarchists began identifying protest targets in public advisories, press releases and on Web sites.

For many, Madison Square Garden, the convention site, was "ground zero," which activists discussed entering with false identification. Others planned to prevent delegates from reaching the convention by blinding bus driver windows or disabling charter buses, lying under vehicles, and using rented cabs and flotillas of bicycles to clog bus routes.

A least 24 hotels throughout the city hosting state delegations were identified on Web sites as delegation hosts at which protestors could converge to harass delegates and disrupt normal hotel business. Reinforced police presence at the Warwick, the Westin and Roosevelt, Commissioner Kelly said in a 2004 speech, prevented demonstrators from "rushing" the delegates' hotels.

The intelligence files show that activists had also planned, and later attempted unsuccessfully, to close down Wall Street, disrupt traffic at Herald Square and elsewhere, crash delegate parties, stage sit-ins in hotel and office lobbies, seal off subway stations with arrest tape and switch subway signs to disorient delegates. There were plans to vandalize retail stores like Starbucks and McDonalds with what Mr. Cohen called "brick and bomb tactics"; activists were also urged to disrupt Broadway performances attended by delegates on Aug. 31, designated as "Chaos on Broadway."

Other businesses seen as hostile to the activists' agenda -- the Carlyle Group, Chevron, the Rand Corporation and Hummer of Manhattan -- were designated for "direct actions" ranging from blocking entrances to breaking windows and setting fires. The files showed that activists with previous arrests for violent conduct were monitored by NYPD plain-clothes detectives, and that information about their convention plans was shared with police departments in other states and counties.

Activists discussed the use of disruptive tactics that had worked so well in Seattle -- Molotov cocktails, ammonium-nitrate bombs with nails, live CS canisters, Tiki Torches (soup cans filled with flammable substances attached to the end of a stick) water guns filled with flammable liquids and chemical irritants, urine or paint, and mobile infrared transmitters to change traffic signals.

The files document at least eight training sessions in New York and outside that were organized by anarchists and other experienced activists. Techniques for evading or countering the police were taught. The New York City Anarchist Tribes, for example, held martial-arts training in Manhattan in January, 2004. The Syracuse Peace Council, in Ithaca, N.Y., which planned to block traffic in New York, held weekend training aimed at "building our own radical activist infrastructure."

The "Constitutional Rights Enforcement and Support Team," an Internet-based group, stated on its Web site that "many people who join this group will die, be wounded, or jailed" in its efforts to counter "police brutality." Ashira Affinity, a Colorado-based anarchist group, urged members to join protests that were "strategic, ruthless, efficient, as well as chaotic."

In addition to the usual crackpot threats posted in Internet chat rooms, such as the one by a writer who vowed to "fly a 767 into the convention and take care of the American problem on Thursday" -- which the police nevertheless could ill afford to ignore -- came vaguer if still troubling counsel from would-be protestors: "Give them the New York they are afraid of," urged one listing.

In Queens, police arrested three "Black bloc" anarchists who had three imitation handguns, a butterfly knife, pellets and a map of New York City. A man arrested on Aug. 20 for criminal trespass and possession of burglary tools in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, had been arrested more than 25 times in California for various offenses.

Critics of the police complain that never had so many protestors at a political convention been arrested. But Mr. Cohen notes that the arrest of some 1,807 out of nearly 800,000 protestors is the lowest arrest-to-crowd ratio of any major political gathering. Had the arrest-to-crowd ratio at a Miami protest in November 2003 been repeated in New York, 10,000 people would have been arrested.

The convention's only serious injury, Mr. Kelly said, was sustained by a detective who was pulled from his scooter and kicked unconscious by a demonstrator. He called the police's handling of the event one of his department's "finest hours," sentiments that were incidentally shared by the Times, which editorialized soon after the convention that the "intense planning" and "well-disciplined use of force" by the police had shown how disruptive tactics could be countered.

New York's fractious history over political surveillance has enhanced distrust between the city's police and civil libertarians. Though the Supreme Court has ruled that undercover surveillance of political groups is generally legal, the NYPD's abuses of political monitoring of anti-Vietnam war activists in the late 1960s led the courts to impose restrictions in 1985 on the department's monitoring of political protests. After the 9/11 attacks, however, the police sought and secured from the courts a loosening of those restrictions to prevent terrorism -- the so-called Handschu guidelines. But as a result, what kind of political surveillance the police can conduct is once again before the courts, and in the press.

Last February, the judge who had loosened the Handschu restrictions in 2003 harshly criticized the police in a separate but related political surveillance case involving the videotaping of protests, ruling that there must be an "indication of unlawful activity" before a political group or a person's political activity can be investigated. The police have challenged that ruling on grounds that this would effectively restore the pre-9/11 limits. They fear it might also dissuade other law enforcement agencies from adopting a similar approach. In fact, the controversy is already having that effect.

That would be a pity. For although I am devoted to the First Amendment and privacy rights, and believe that effective judicial and administrative oversight is critical to preventing police abuses, I also want the NYPD to have the tools and programs to protect the city from terrorist attacks. If that means scanning the Internet and sending plainclothes officers to public meetings to learn about planned actions that might turn violent, or be infiltrated and taken over by violent dissidents, so be it. Unfortunately, the current controversy is already making other police departments wary of following the NYPD's effective tactics.

Some law enforcement officials in the Twin Cities fear there may be many arrests during the 2008 Republican convention there. But Tim Lynaugh, a police officer assigned to convention planning, said his department hopes there will be almost none. But with fewer than than 600 police officers (New York has 37,000 in uniform), they will probably need outside assistance to assure public safety.

While the NYPD's advice was helpful when officers from both departments met in January to discuss preparations, police in the Twin Cities would probably not emulate New York's surveillance program prior to its own convention, even if it had the manpower to do so. "If what we've read about their program is true," Mr. Lynaugh said, "That is just not how we operate."

Ms. Miller, a former New York Times reporter, is a writer in Manhattan.

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