Surveillance of Student Group Raises Spectre of Police Overreach
U.S. intelligence agencies have been monitoring the movements of citizens long before Glenn Greenwald broke the story about National Security Administration (NSA) spy programs earlier this summer, setting off a media hoopla.
After unveiling documents showing that the NSA has been monitoring and collecting telephone call data known as “metadata” for millions Americans, many began to question the legitimacy of this type of surveillance under the guise of anti-terrorism efforts.
It turns out, it’s only part of the story. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, federal and state surveillance of nonviolent student groups, protest movements and mosques has increased markedly with the proliferation of “fusion centers,” where state and federal authorities can aggregate resources in a common area.
According to the Department of Homeland Security website, there are now 53 primary fusion centers and 25 recognized fusion centers across the U.S.
United Students Against Sweatshops
It’s part of a string of reports claiming that police are overreaching in their attempts to nab criminals and would-be terrorists. In one recent incident, The Washington Post reports that members of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a student organization, claims that an undercover officer illegally infiltrated their group, took photos and videos of their non-violent protests.
USAS is a national advocacy organization that supports workers’ rights and fair labor practices. Group members have previously organized demonstrations outside stores selling Nike, Adidas, Wal-Mart and the Gap products, as well as other companies that USAS says utilize sweatshop labor to produce goods.
Here are the alleged details of this case: The Washington Post reports earlier this month that a Washington D.C. police officer known as “Rizzy,” posing as an activist who supported the group, illegally infiltrated and monitored the group. USAS has filed a lawsuit claiming that the officer didn’t even have permission to be deployed in an undercover capacity.
“The allegation is not that the undercover officer took photos and videos of USAS, but that she should not have been deployed in an undercover capacity in the first place,” said Jeffrey Light, an attorney representing USAS, in a written statement to Mint Press News.
Light elaborated on this point in a statement to The Washington Post, claiming that the officer likely wasn’t given orders to attend rallies and keep tabs on the group.
“I cannot think of any legitimate reason for the police to be sending an undercover officer to those [protests],” Light said. “She was handing out fliers, asking to be put on email list and asking about future events. If the police wanted to know that, they could’ve checked the website.”
Student leaders were alerted to the officer’s activities when the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) contacted the groups with evidence of the officer’s surveillance. “This first came to our attention when we were holding protests at the GAP store in Washington D.C. Lawyers from NLG approached us with evidence showing that an undercover was monitoring us,” said Jan Von Tol, a national organizer for USAS, in a statement to Mint Press News.
The officer apparently posted suggestive tweets and online posts that USAS believes are evidence of the officer’s surveillance work. Rizzi, labeled an “agent provocateur” by Light, said he found tweets about how she dresses in civilian clothes to “blend in” and about having to work outside on a day when there was also a protest of the Keystone pipeline. The police claim that their work is sanctioned by law.
“I feel confident that we have adhered to all laws pertaining to the First Amendment Rights and Police Standards Act of 2004,” D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said in a brief statement.
Lanier references D.C. law passed in 2004 following a $21 million lawsuit filed by The Partnership for Civil Justice claiming that an uncovered D.C. officer infiltrated a peaceful protest group and urged them to commit violent acts.
“She just seemed like a very enthusiastic community member. We went back through our photos and realized she had been involved in two protests. There’s pretty extensive social media postings from this person. If you look at the times and things she’s posting. She posts that she’s ‘at work’ while these protests are happening. They [NLG] did a good job of investigating her background,” Von Tol said.
Student leaders are baffled as to why the police would spend time monitoring their group, which has no previous history of violence or illegal activity. “It’s a little bit disturbing that she was that careless. I really couldn’t say why we were targeted. We are a non-violent group,” Von Tol said.
Increasing surveillance across the U.S.
Is it a waste of police resources? Many analysts think that these types of incidents have increased markedly since Sept. 11, diverting resources while violating constitutionally protected liberties that bar authorities from carrying out unreasonable searches and seizures.
The Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank in Washington cited several troubling incidents in a 2011 report called “We’re All Terrorists Now,” claiming, “The North Texas Fusion System labeled Muslim lobbyists as a potential threat; a DHS analyst in Wisconsin thought both pro- and anti-abortion activists were worrisome; a Pennsylvania homeland security contractor watched environmental activists, Tea Party groups and a Second Amendment rally; the Maryland State Police put anti-death penalty and anti-war activists in a federal terrorism database; a fusion center in Missouri thought that all third-party voters and Ron Paul supporters were a threat; and the Department of Homeland Security described half of the American political spectrum as ‘right-wing extremists.’”
Some members of the U.S. Senate have begun to question the effectiveness of the fusion centers as well.
“It’s troubling that the very ‘fusion’ centers that were designed to share information in a post-9/11 world have become part of the problem. Instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties,” said Senator Tom Coburn, Homeland Security and Public Affairs Subcommittee ranking member who initiated a two-year investigation into the centers.
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