The Boston chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is asking the Boston Police Department to stop monitoring peaceful demonstrations, interrogating activists and categorizing peaceful groups as extremists.
After reviewing hundreds of public police records the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild obtained with a court order, the ACLU says it sees a pattern of police spying on lawful activities.
BPD says it does not gather information on First Amendment-protected groups and events.
Boston 'Fusion Center'
The Boston Regional Intelligence Center is one of more than 40 so-called "fusion centers" around the country that were set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to share intelligence among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
The documents released to the ACLU show that the center has conducted extensive surveillance and investigations of lawful political activities. Members of the Boston Police Department are tracking the internal workings of political groups, interrogating peaceful activists, and filming demonstrations, such as an Occupy Boston protest from last year. In it, Occupy activists chant as the police video slowly pans the faces of those demonstrating.
The materials were released to the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild after the groups sued for records relating to expanded police intelligence operations. Massachusetts ACLU Director Carol Rose says they show a disturbing pattern of labeling peaceful groups as extremists.
"Acts that have no criminal nexus whatsoever, talking about who should be a speaker at a church panel, for example, are listed under headings of criminal acts with labels like extremists, domestic terrorist threat, homeland security threat," Rose said. "But all the activities detailed in the reports themselves are purely protected free speech."
United for Justice with Peace and Stop the Wars Coalition are among those labeled extremist. So is the group Veterans for Peace. Its coordinator, Pat Scanlon, calls that outrageous.
"I take exception to that in the sense that I think groups like the Ku Klux Klan or skinheads may be considered as extremist groups," Scanlon said. "We have not been or will not ever be involved in criminal activity. All of our activities are based on promoting peace and civil liberties."
The Boston fusion center's guidelines say it should investigate crimes rather than speech. And it's supposed to be destroying interim reports within 90 days if there is no criminal activity.
But as part of the lawsuit, police turned over documents from as far back as 2007. And they show local officers are passing this information on to federal law enforcement. This concerns Urzula Mansy-Latos, of the National Lawyers Guild.
"We don’t know exactly who has access to the documents and how long they are kept and what they do with it," Mansy-Latos said. "For us everything that we’ve seen is very, very problematic and deeply troubling."
Boston Police say the fusion center does not maintain continued surveillance or documentation on peace protest groups. It says they do not monitor events without specific information on suspected criminal activity. The older reports, police say, were kept in their system by mistake because of a software glitch.
Earlier this month a congressional report said the fusion centers are “forwarding intelligence of uneven quality” that sometimes is “endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections.” And, the report adds, more often than not, the activities under surveillance are unrelated to terrorism.
'They Are At Every Single One Of Our Protests'
"Oh, they are at every single one of our protests," said longtime activist Susan Barney, of Arlington, who says she sees police working for the fusion center filming peaceful demonstrations about foreclosures, CORI reform and immigration rights. She says the government is trying to stifle dissent and target anyone who is speaking out. It makes her skeptical of the nation’s war on terror.
"The question of how the government defines terrorists and who the government is putting that label on is a question that needs to be at the forefront of our minds," Barney said*.
The ACLU is asking the Boston Police Department to stop the surveillance and to create an independent public auditing system. BPD says they already have systems in place to protect the privacy of individuals and groups.
Correction: An earlier version of this post mis-transcribed Barney's quotation. She referenced "how the government defines terrorists," not "how the government finds terrorists."
This program aired on October 18, 2012.