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When Boston Police Spy on Free Speech, Democracy Suffers

An image representing government surveillance.
An image representing government surveillance.
Nancy Murray,
Education Director,
ACLU of Massachusetts
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October 18, 2012

Originally posted by

Psst! Check out this super-secret Boston Police “intelligence report”:

Local activists have been trying to get ‘celebrity guest speakers’ (Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon) for the March 24th demonstration, but at this time it appears that they have been unable to book any of these speakers for their event.

But some well-known speakers will be there. According to this intelligence report,” compiled by the Boston police under the heading “Criminal Act–Groups-Extremists,” among them will be Cindy Sheehan and a “BU professor emeritus/activist” whose name is redacted–it was the late Howard Zinn.

These excerpts come from one of several documents and videotapes obtained through a lawsuit brought against the Boston Police Department by the ACLU of Massachusetts and Massachusetts Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. We are making these criminal “intelligence” reports public today, along with a report analyzing its significance–and avideo of some of the peace activists who have been targeted.

We now have proof of what peace groups and activists have long suspected: Boston Police officers have worked within the local fusion spying center, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), to monitor the lawful political activity of local peace groups and track their movements and beliefs. This information has been retained in searchable electronic “intelligence” reports bearing labels such as “Groups – Civil Disturbance,” “Groups–Extremists,” “HomeSec-Domestic” under the heading “Criminal Act.”

Under what interpretation of the US and Massachusetts Constitutions can the non-violent First Amendment activity of groups like Veterans for Peace and United for Justice with Peace be routinely classified as a criminal act?

If you have glanced at the US Senate subcommittee report on fusion centers that came out earlier this month, you may not be surprised to hear that Boston’s fusion center has been collecting dubious “intelligence” and violating civil liberties in the process.

Fusion centers were set up in the aftermath of 9/11 to facilitate the sharing of “terrorism-related” information among local, state, and federal law enforcement and private entities. But the Senate subcommittee report finds that the nation’s 70 or so fusion centers (the exact number is in dispute–DHS, which contributed the seed funding for the centers, doesn’t know how many exist today) have not uncovered a single terrorist plot.

Indeed, the spying centers have produced “nothing of value,” and instead needlessly duplicate the “more efficient information-sharing process already in place between local police and the FBI-led Terrorist Screening Center.”

Their output is often, in the words of one government official, “a bunch of crap.”

Much of it is also “potentially illegal,” according to the US Senate report, because it falls foul of federal privacy regulations and Department of Homeland Security guidelines that forbid the routine monitoring of groups and individuals unless there is reason to suspect them of criminal activity.

The BRIC’s own guidelines say the same thing.

And yet we now know that the BRIC, local and state police and the FBI have worked together to monitor and create “intelligence reports” on groups and individuals where there is no demonstrated link to crime or terrorism. There are indications that these illegal reports have been shared around the country, just how widely we don’t know.

Given the secrecy surrounding the “information-sharing” surveillance systems that have been erected since 9/11 and the lack of any accountability mechanisms, we can’t determine exactly where reports generated by the BRIC end up. Inaccurate information could have found a permanent home in a myriad government–and even private–databases, with harm to lives that can never be repaired.

The documents we received in response to our lawsuit demonstrate that the BRIC cannot effectively police itself.

According to the BRIC’s guidelines, “intelligence reports” that do not reference criminal activity should be destroyed after 90 days. And yet we obtained reports that should never have been written in the first place and were still being retained after five years. Why should it take an ACLU/NLG lawsuit to highlight the BRIC’s failure to enforce its own rules?

We know the political surveillance revealed in these documents wastes scarce tax dollars and police resources that would be better focused on building community trust and solving actual crimes.

And we know that political spying is bad for democracy.

You can view this videotape to hear some of the peace activists who have been monitored by the police or questioned about their personal beliefs talk about the “chilling impact” such surveillance can have on such core American values as freedom of expression and assembly.

Today, we are calling on the Boston Police to cease the routine surveillance of peaceful protests and the monitoring of individuals who take part in them.

And we are asking you to join us in demanding that reforms are put in place to ensure that there will be no policing of dissent in Massachusetts.

Let’s work together to ensure that our Commonwealth–and all of America–remains a Constitutionally protected free speech zone.

Please note that by playing this clip You Tube and Google will place a long-term cookie on your computer. Please see You Tube’s privacy statement on their website and Google’s privacy statement on theirs to learn more. To view the ACLU’s privacy statement, click here.

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