Activists as Terrorists
How Protest Is Criminalized
I was beginning to mourn the possible loss of the Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of the Senseless. Then I read Thursday’s only op-ed in the Journal, a 2,300 piece headlined “When Activists Are Terrorists,” by-lined Judith Miller. The entirely misleading (make that libelous) headline aside, the piece shows once again why Miller was always miscast as a reporter at the Times, why she’s been a Murdochian creature most at ease in the setting of tabloid sensationalism—which the Journal’s editorial and op-ed pages can wonderfully be when their courtesans aren’t lifting their skirts at the fringes of the Republican right.
Miller’s piece is a defense of the New York City Police Department’s “R.N.C. Intelligence Squad,” a unit the NYPD created in 2003 to infiltrate and spy on protest groups that were planning to be at the Republican National Convention in Manhattan in 2004. The piece is also a lot more, and because it’s Judith, a lot less, than that. It’s primarily an attack on the New York Times. On March 25, the Times’ Jim Dwyer wrote a long, lead investigative piece titled, “City Police Spied Before G.O.P. Convention.” The piece is excruciatingly even-handed, qualifying every suggestion of police misconduct with police-quoted rationales. But the piece’s premise, based on an analysis of the police’s documentation of its spying, can’t be qualified:
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 ''R.N.C. 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 ''N.Y.P.D. Secret,'' the Intelligence Division chronicled the views and plans of people who had no apparent intention of breaking the law, the records show.
After 9/11 No one in his right mind would question the NYPD’s responsibility not to leave counter-terrorism to the feds alone. Legal provisions for preemptive surveillance were made clear by a court, but “Before monitoring political activity, the police must have ‘some indication of unlawful activity on the part of the individual or organization to be investigated,’ United States District Court Judge Charles Haight Sr. said in a ruling” in February 2007. The NYPD’s spying-and-surveillance operation wasn’t about counter-terrorism. It wasn’t about following up on “some indication of unlawful activity.” It was the wholesale spying and infiltrating of political groups opposed to the Bush administration, in preparation for the wholesale crackdown on legal protest at the convention, by illegal means. The NYPD arrested 1,806 people that week. Many of them were locked up for two days on minor offenses that would normally warrant a summons. All of them were finger-printed. Several planned protests, peaceful if slightly disruptive to the even flow of a day’s normal business (as protests by definition are), were snuffed out the moment they began.
What the NYPD implemented, in essence, was conduct a systematic campaign of prior restraint on protest. Prior restraint is illegal when it comes to the press. In case after case the Supreme Court has struck down prior restraint as a fundamental offense against the First Amendment. But protest is nothing if not an exercise of First Amendment rights, and snuffing out protest, as well as spying on protesters, is nothing if not prior restraint by other means. That’s what the NYPD successfully accomplished at the Republican National Convention. In all, close to 1 million people protested. But the means of protest were restrained, and the protesters themselves were, by the hundreds and thousands, in protest “pens,” in segregated protest zones, in cuffs, in jail.
Dwyer’s article shows to what extent the NYPD shifted its counter-terrorism resources toward counter-protest—like Bush shifting the “war on terror” to his bogus Iraqi front—under the assumption that “domestic surveillance activities was essential to fighting terrorism.” As David Cohen, the deputy police commissioner for intelligence and a former senior official at the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote in a Sept. 12, 2002 affidavit, “Given the range of activities that may be engaged in by the members of a sleeper cell in the long period of preparation for an act of terror, the entire resources of the N.Y.P.D. must be available to conduct investigations into political activity and intelligence-related issues.” How protest groups on college campuses and communes and church basements and community centers in New Mexico, Miami, Montreal or Minnesota could in any way be automatically linked to “terrorism” and their sniffing out to “fighting terrorism” is beyond comprehension. But it’s what the NYPD did, and got away with, because it’s how the anti-terrorism mentality in the country has managed to conflate the issues, to connect dots that only repressive regimes, until now, could connect in peace. Not only did the NYPD connect the dots. It acted on the connections, freely and ruthlessly. The “RNC Intelligence Squad” did the kind of job that would have made an old Stasi veteran proud. Who knows: If Verner von Braun could find work alongside Walt Disney’s fancies and the Pentagon’s envies, imagine how much work American police departments have been providing all those out-of-work East German spies and polizei.
Needless to say, not a single terrorist was sniffed out in the entire operation, and what “threats” the NYPD did speak of—a bomber in a Manhattan park, for example—has always been hidden between innuendoes and official statements. The hard evidence, provable in court, remains, as always, unavailable.
That’s what the Wall Street Journal went on to write the headline: “When Activists Are Terrorists.” That’s what it went on to give its entire Thursday op-ed page to Judith Miller, so Miller could fog up the case with slimy attacks like this: Cohen, she wrote, “said that there was no special ‘squad’ to provide political intelligence for the convention, as the Times reported.’” Of course there was. Read Cohen’s affidavit and the ensuing reports, thousands of them, generated by the squad. But Miller qualifies her little attack by defining the “squad” so specifically as to mischaracterize it.
She then writes: “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.” (Why she refers to herself in the ponderous “this reporter” style when, a few paragraphs later, she assumes the first person singular, is a small reflection of the recurrent sloppiness in the piece.) Protest by definition is opposition; if the NYPD wasn’t monitoring those groups for their political views, then what was the denominator that led the squad to those groups? It certainly didn’t infiltrate anti-abortion groups or Baptist church groups planning to send their groupies to Madison Square Garden.
And why were groups spied on? Here’s where Miller loses it: “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.” Where is the logical, evidentiary connection between “threat-driven” and the innuendo-laden fact that 65 percent of the protesters came from outside the state? Since when has “coming from outside the state” any relevance to national political activities in the United States? More than ninety percent of the delegates inside the convention hall came from outside the state, too. Were they spied on?
Well, Miller goes on, there was all that “anarchist” chatter all over the internet. She uses the word “anarchist” or its variants seven times in her piece, by the end of which it read more like something written in the yellow press of 1907 than 2007. And then there was this gem: “In Queens, police arrested three ‘Black bloc’ anarchists who had three imitation handguns, a butterfly knife, pellets and a map of New York City.” My god! Quick! Get the NYPD squad the Congressional Medal of Honor. They arrested guys with pellet guns and a New York City Map! InNew York City!(Note to self: leave all maps behind next time you’re traveling across the United States. And get that map of Orlando out of your car.)
Then, toward the end of the piece, she confesses: “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.” Have we established that any of the NYPD’s work did anything at all to prevent terrorist attacks, let alone clue in other authorities about the whereabouts of possible terrorists? Of course not. All we’ve done is reaffirm the libelous confluence at the heart of police tactics these days, the libelous confluence blared in the Journal headline above Miller’s piece: Activists are terrorists.
Libel is one thing. Activists will survive it. As one of them told Dwyer, “If the police want to infiltrate and waste their time—well, it’s a waste of taxpayer money” (Ed Hedemann of the War Resisters League, a pacifist organization founded in 1923. Oddly, that quote was in my print version of the story, which I kept, but deleted from the Times’ on-line version.) Wasting taxpayer resources isn’t as excusable. Diverting resources from actual anti-terrorism operations (not that local police departments should be involved in such things: a theme neither the Times piece nor the Journal piece touched on, thereby endorsing a notion they should be questioning) is worse.
That Miller puts herself once again in the center of so many bogus conjunctions sums up the telling symbolism of this story. That only the ACLU has been fighting the NYPD’s NSA impersonations sums up the telling indifference of a public that would read Miller’s account and the Journal’s headline and say: of course. Why not? We must protect ourselves. From whom? If you must ask: from fellow Americans.