a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

The FBI and Occupy: sometimes it ain’t paranoia

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th December 2012

The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) has obtained FBI documents
detailing the agency’s national efforts to monitor the Occupy Wall Street
movement. Click here for more.

Last week, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) reported:

FBI documents just obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) pursuant to the PCJF’s Freedom of Information Act demands reveal that from its inception, the FBI treated the Occupy movement as a potential criminal and terrorist threat even though the agency acknowledges in documents that organizers explicitly called for peaceful protest and did “not condone the use of violence” at occupy protests.

At the time of the wave of crackdowns against Occupy Wall Street (OWS) encampments around the country, some writers — most prominently Naomi Wolf (“The shocking truth about the crackdown on Occupy,” 11/25/11) — argued that events showed “coordination against OWS at the highest national levels,” while others like Joshua Holland felt the “word “coordinated” is too vague to offer any analytic value.” 

In followups, many progressive commentators joined Holland in minimizing the federal role in the crackdowns.  First relying on Holland’s rebuttal, and later focusing on reports from Portland exonerating the Obama DHS in that city, Corey Robin, for instance, argued that the “Crackdown on Occupy [was] Probably Not Organized by the Obama Administration.”  To be clear: the motive wasn’t to minimize the crackdowns, but to question the need to invoke a driving federal role in them.*  As Scott Lemieux (“Lawyers, Guns & Money”) put it mockingly — he seems not to be able to help himself — Wolf’s position implied that “authoritarian actions could not be the result of our benevolent local overlords but must be the work of the big bad feds.    History does not provide much support for this assumption.”  Robin’s analysis was the same, if more circumspect: “political repression in the US tends to be decentralized and local.”  Call it the “They don’t need no steenkin’ federal badges” analysis.

The documents obtained by PCJF — in this “production” and previous ones throughout the year — make that view not wrong so much as uninteresting, even beside the point.

True, there’s no smoking gun directly tying the DHS or the FBI to the violent evictions or the decisions leading to them.*  But the documents show that focusing on the evictions per se was an analytic mistake of its own: federal agencies from the FBI to DHS to the National Park Service had laid the groundwork well before then.

PCFJ exec. director Mara Verheyden-Hilliard on “Democracy Now!”

A Democracy Now! segment summarizes the news of the document release:

…the FBI monitored Occupy Wall Street from its earliest days and treated the nonviolent movement as a potential terrorist threat. Internal government records show Occupy was treated as a potential threat when organizing first began in August of 2011. Counterterrorism agents were used to track Occupy activities, despite the internal acknowledgment that the movement opposed violent tactics. The monitoring expanded across the country as Occupy grew into a national movement, with FBI agents sharing information with businesses, local police agencies and universities.

Among the examples PCJF highlights:

  • As early as August 19, 2011, the FBI in New York was meeting with the New York Stock Exchange to discuss the Occupy Wall Street protests that wouldn’t start for another month. By September, prior to the start of the OWS, the FBI was notifying businesses that they might be the focus of an OWS protest. […]
  • The FBI in Anchorage reported from a Joint Terrorism Task Force meeting of November 3, 2011, about Occupy activities in Anchorage. Read the rest of this entry »

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One routine FOIA checkup, one clean bill of health

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th December 2010

Federal Bureau of Investigation
November 30, 2010

FOIPA Request No.: 1157666-000

Dear Mr. Nephew,

This responds to your Freedom of Information/Privacy Acts (FOIPA) request

Based on the information you provided, we conducted a search of the indices to our Central Records System.  We were unable to identify responsive main file records.  […]

To the extent your FOIPA request seeks access to records that would either confirm or deny any individual’s placement on any government watch list, please be advised that the U.S. Government can neither confirm nor deny whether a particular person is on any terrorist watch list. […]

Sincerely yours,

I got the clean bill of surveillance health about two weeks after filing my FOIA request, using forms supplied by the Defending Dissent Foundation. While I thought the odds were somewhere between slim and none that I’d been worth wasting FBI time on, I didn’t know for sure, I’d wondered about it before, and I figured it would be interesting to find out one way or the other.

I’ve been arrested for civil disobedience twice in my life.  Once was way back in 1983, at a mass blockade of Lawrence Livermore Labs, where U.S. nuclear weapons are designed; there were 1300 of us, and we spent 11 days in jail — in our case, a huge circus tent on the grounds of the Santa Rita Jail — before eventually being released en masse.  The other time was on my own, on September 11, 2005, at the Pentagon-sponsored “Freedom Walk” commemorating 9/11 and ‘supporting the troops.’  I wore an “Abu Ghraib guy” poncho and hood, and carried a sign reading “For Them, For Us, For Our Troops: Never Again” (in part) on one side and “Freedom?” on the other. Back in 1977, I joined a demonstration against building a gym on the site of the Kent State shootings, but wasn’t arrested.  Besides those incidents, I’ve been involved in various grassroots political groups from time to time, mainly the nuclear freeze and free zone movements in California,  and impeachment efforts in Takoma Park.

Defending Dissent FoundationI outlined those activities on the Department of Justice “Certification of Identity” Form 360 available via Defending Dissent, following the helpful directions they supply separately.  (As per the example given there, I also included the meeting about the FBI raids on peace activists that I attended in early November.)  I put the envelope in the mail, and figured I’d hear from them in two or three months.

Instead, it was just a couple of weeks.  And — as I suspected I would — I learned that I’m not all that interesting, and that the FBI is not quite so monumentally stupid as to think that I am.

But many other people have been equally peaceful and undeserving of FBI or police attention, yet got it all the same.  The anti-death penalty and peace activists who were infiltrated and reported on by Maryland State Police might have once scoffed to think they were under suspicion as well.  But at some point they filed a FOIA request — and shone a light on serious police abuses of power and infringements of the right of free speech, free assembly, and freedom from surveillance without reasonable cause.

For most of us, most of the time, I think the best way to think of a FOIA request is as a kind of routine citizen checkup: a checkup on your privacy and liberties, and a checkup on the country.  I’m pleased that in my case, the results were good — one unsurprising positive data point to weigh against the negative ones.  I’ve met people who were morbidly and almost certainly unjustifiably paranoid about this kind of thing, and I don’t think that does anyone any good — it deactivates and discourages you for no good reason.  My one little experience pushes back against that at any rate.

So if you’re at all politically active — and even if you’re not — I think you should submit a FOIA request, too, or even organize a FOIA party with your friends.  If you’re like me, it’s likely you’ll find there’s nothing to worry about — and if you’re like me, it’s also likely a request you’ll want to get in the habit of repeating from time to time.  If you do, share the results with Defending Dissent, where great people like Sue Udry stand ready to help with whatever develops.


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Activists report suspicious government activity: the Nov. 6 FBI raids forum

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 13th November 2010

As advertised here and elsewhere, activists convened at the Washington Friends Meeting House last Saturday afternoon for education and brainstorming about the recent troubling FBI raids and grand jury subpoenas of peace and solidarity activists in Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan. Search warrants indicated the FBI was looking for evidence of “material support” for foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) in Colombia, Palestine, and elsewhere — but as forum-goers were to learn, the idea of ‘material support’ has been stretched past the breaking point. A diverse and engaged crowd of some forty people attended the forum, and peppered each of three speaker panels with questions before brainstorming together about the next directions they could take.

A video of the first panel is shown to the right.  This video and two more like it are displayed on an “11/6 forum videos” page together with links to news items, analyses, and documents referred to by panelists.

The first panel, “What’s Going On and What Are the Legal Rules in Place?,” was led off by Sue Udry, of the Defending Dissent Foundation, who spoke about the raids themselves, the shifting legal predicaments the activists involved are in, and the background of ever more intrusive, expanding uses of surveillance to address ‘terror threats’ allegedly emanating from nonviolent peace, animal rights, and environmental groups, to name a few. Using the Inspector General report on the FBI, and revelations from Pennsylvania, Iowa, and elsewhere, Ms. Udry made clear that the FBI raids are not isolated incidents, but an escalation of an already deteriorating situation.

Ms. Udry was followed by  ACLU legislative counsel Michelle Richardson.  Like Ms. Udry, Ms. Richardson noted how the expanding surveillance undermined both the Constitution and real counterterrorism efforts by “dumping more hay” on the haystack, instead of focusing on searching for needles.  She described the United States as a surveillance society “collecting 1.7 billion records and communications a day. … When you get to 1.7 billion, that’s not about the government going to a judge and saying “I have a suspected terrorist, I’d like to read his emails,” that’s about our government turning its extraordinary computer powers loose on the American people.”  Charity and Security Network executive director Kay Guinane focused on the recent Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project ruling, which she and others believe probably green-lighted the raids on the peace activists.  John Hardenbergh of the National Lawyers Guild discussed the grand jury process, acknowledging the old saw that prosecutors could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich — though he got a laugh with the observation “it depends what the ham sandwich is accused of doing.”

Read the rest of this entry »

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11/6/10 forum videos

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 10th November 2010


The FBI Raids: Activists Respond to Government Intrusion (part 1)
Download (54 min, 357 MB)
Creative Commons copyright: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
No transcript available

“We’re here today to talk about what happened with the FBI raids, what our rights are, and how we can respond.”
–Kit Bonson, Washington Peace Center*

“…fourteen of them were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury, they stood in solidarity with each other, and every single one of them refused to testify before the grand jury, which is a major – and to me, inspiring – story.  However, the prosecutors have come back and said that they are going to reissue the subpoenas to some of those activists.”
— Sue Udry, Defending Dissent Foundation

“…the surveillance society that we have in this country is collecting 1.7 billion records and communications a day. … When you get to 1.7 billion, that’s not about the government going to a judge and saying “I have a suspected terrorist, I’d like to read his emails,” that’s about our government turning its extraordinary computer powers loose on the American people.”

— Michelle Richardson, ACLU

Related links

Defending Dissent Foundation (Sue Udry)(1:23)
* US agencies forewarned about India bomb suspect (Rotella, Wash.Post)
* Jordan Halliday Sentenced to 10 Months for Resisting Grand Jury (Potter,
* Solidarity statements with 9/24 raid targets (
* A Review of the FBI’s Investigations of Certain Domestic Advocacy Groups (Dept. of Justice OIG Report)
* Actionable Intelligence Briefing, 10/31-11/1/09 (PA Inst. of Terrorism Research and Response)

ACLU (Michelle Richardson)(12:40)
* Top Secret America (Wash.Post series)
* More about FBI Spying (ACLU)
* What’s Wrong with Fusion Centers (ACLU)
* Universal Adversary Dynamic Threat Assessment, 5/7/08 (DHS)
* FBI’s Latest Power Grab Is a Bold and Unnecessary Move (Richardson, ACLU)
* NSA To Build $1.5 Billion Cybersecurity Data Center (Hoover, InformationWeek)
* DHS expands ‘see something, say something’ campaign to fusion centers (SecurityInfoWatch)
* The Privatization of Citizen Informant Networks (emptywheel, “firedoglake”)

Charity and Security Network (Kay Guinane)(27:33)
* 11/6/10 presentation outline (Guinane)
* Material support and the Humanitarian Law Project Decision (CSN document, 11/2010)
* Material Support and the Need for a Sensible Humanitarian Exemption (CSN analysis)
* 18 USC 2339B (Providing material support to designated foreign terrorist organizations)
* AEDPA (Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996)
* Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project (Supreme Court, 2010)
* The Roberts Court’s Free Speech Problem (David Cole, NYRBlog, June ’10)

National Lawyers Guild (John Hardenbergh)(42:55)
* Grand Jury Resistance Project (GJRP)
* Midnight Special Law Collective
* Impact of Grand Juries on Political Movements (GJRP; .PDF)
* The Improper Use of the Federal Grand Jury: An Instrument for the Internment of Political Activists (Deutsch, 1984; .PDF, 25 pages)

vid 2

The FBI Raids: Activists Respond to Government Intrusion (part 2)
Download (62 min, 415MB)
Creative Commons copyright: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
No transcript available

“…Every time you hear another story it’s more shocking than the last time. Each group is never really suspected of doing anything wrong, it’s considered sort of preventive or preemptive spying. So whether it’s happening again I couldn’t give you good advice about, whether it’s not or what even to do to prevent it. That’s really the chilling effect that it has: you want to be open, you want to have public meetings, you want to be able to organize but you’re prevented from doing so by the fear that you are being infiltrated…”
— Michelle Richardson, ACLU

“If you come away with anything from this training… one: cops lie and the second lesson I’d like people to come away with is keep your mouth shut.”
— John Hardenbergh, National Lawyers Guild

vid 2 links

* Foreign Terrorist Organizations (Dept. of State), Specially Designated Global Terrorist list (Treasury Dept.)
* Lisa Schrich, Eastern Mennonite Univ., 3D Security Initiative in FREE SPEECH, HUMAN RIGHTS AND COUNTERTERRORISM LAWS: A Briefing on What’s at Stake in the Supreme Court Case Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. (2/17/10 forum transcript, .PDF); forum video excerpt; Free Speech or Support for Terrorists? Supreme Court Weighs Key Patriot Act Provision (de Vogue, ABC News, 2/22/10)
* The Impact of Counterterrorism Measures on Charities and Donors After 9/11 (Charity and Security Network); Restore Religious Freedom for Charitable Donors (Turner, ACLU)
* Brad Sherman (D-CA) call for ‘material support’ charges for Gaza Flotilla supporters; transcript (.PDF)
* Justice Dept. Renews Enforcement of Subpoenas for Antiwar Activists Targeted in FBI Raids (Amy Goodman 11/5/10 interview w. Bruce Nestor, National Lawyers Guild, Democracy Now!)
* COINTELPRO: THE FBI’S COVERT ACTION PROGRAMS AGAINST AMERICAN CITIZENS (Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations, a.k.a. Church Committee, 1976)
* Demand Your DotRights (ACLU Northern California)

National Lawyers Guild
* Flex Your Rights

vid 3

The FBI Raids: Activists Respond to Government Intrusion (part 3)
Download (26 min, 214MB)
Creative Commons copyright: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
No transcript available

“We really wanted to make sure that people didn’t leave today feeling completely fearful and demoralized.  Because the object of learning about the FBI’s — and I would dare say other agencies’ — surveillance and infiltration is not to… shut people down and to make you all go home and hide under your bed.  The object is to figure out a way to work with this knowledge and to make sure our movements are ever growing and ever stronger.”
— Nadine Bloch

vid 3 links

Nadine Bloch
* Sachs Report (Review of Maryland State Police Covert Surveillance of Anti-Death Penalty and Anti-War Groups from March 2005 to May 2006)
* ACLU Maryland “No Spying” page
* Laird v. Tatum (Wikipedia)

Raed Jarrar
* Yassin Aref (Wikipedia); Son of Mountains (Yassin Aref web site)
* linked news articles (Yassin Aref web site)
* Muslim Solidarity Committee
* “Little Guantanamo”–Secretive “CMU” Prisons Designed to Restrict Communication of Jailed Muslims and Activists with Outside World (Democracy Now! April ’09)
* Entrapment or Foiling Terror? FBI’s Reliance on Paid Informants Raises Questions about Validity of Terrorism Cases (Democracy Now! October ’10)
* Dr. Sami Al-Arian (Wikipedia); U.S.A. vs. Al-Arian (Norwegian documentary film)
* Feds arrest N.Va. man in D.C. Metro bomb plot (Finn/Hsu/Gibson, Wash.Post, 10/27/10)
* Suspect in subway terror sting pleads not guilty (Barakat, AP to Wash.Post, 11/9/10)
* METRO PLOTTER SNARED (Express, 10/28/10)


FBI Raids Forum (pt.1): What is going on?
John Hardenbergh (NLG), Kay Guinane (Charity and Security), Michelle Richardson (ACLU), Sue Udry (standing; Defending Dissent), Kit Bonson (Washington Peace Center)



* Search and Seizure Warrant, residence of Michael Kelly
* Defending Dissent October 10 newsletter
* The September 24 FBI ‘material support’ raids (this blog)
* Justice Dept. Renews Enforcement of Subpoenas for Antiwar Activists Targeted in FBI Raids (Amy Goodman 11/5/10 interview w. Bruce Nestor, National Lawyers Guild, Democracy Now!)

Groups sponsoring the forum
* Washington Peace Center
* Defending Dissent Foundation
* National Lawyers Guild
* Bill of Rights Defense Committee

My own blog posts about this issue
* Dissent is not a crime – DC activists to hold forum on FBI raids
* The September 24 FBI ‘material support’ raids
* Activists report suspicious government activity: the Nov. 6 FBI raids forum


* Kit Bonson is mistakenly listed in the video as being part of the National Lawyers Guild; she is affiliated with the Washington Peace Center.

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The September 24 FBI ‘material support’ raids

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 10th November 2010

This past Saturday, November 6, I attended an excellent forum — announced earlier on this blog and (mainly) elsewhere — about some very troubling FBI raids on fourteen peace activists in Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan on September 24th.  The raids sought evidence of their alleged support of terrorist organizations.  In the course of writing about that forum, I’ve decided I need to back up and record some of the basics I’ve been able to learn about the raids, their subjects, and the subsequent legal process.

Many of the fourteen people who were subjects of the September 24 FBI raids are associated to varying degrees with the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), an avowedly Marxist-Leninist organization that, not surprisingly, calls for the overthrow of the capitalist system in the jubilee days a-coming, but whose members also apparently engage in slightly more feasible, sometimes gutsy peace- , justice- and labor-related outreach work in the here and now in Colombia, the Middle East, and the U.S. An ad hoc, but doubtless related Committee to Stop FBI Repression has published profiles of the 14 activists to their web site; they include a PIRG activist who traveled to Palestine to meet with NGO members there, a grandmother of five, and a University of Illinois Staff Person of the Year.

Another common bond among at least some of the activists served with search warrants is that they were involved in the 2008 protests around the Republican convention in Minneapolis.  The events in Minneapolis surrounding that convention, mentioned at this blog and elsewhere, seemed to me at the time a veritable negative showcase of police surveillance, infiltration, and abuses.**

An apparently typical search warrant, for Michael Kelly, looks ominous at first glance: it seeks evidence concerning the violation of 18 USC 2339B, or “Providing material support or resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations.” The FTO’s involved are a rogue’s gallery indeed — Colombia’s FARC, and Middle Eastern groups like Hezbollah and the PFLP.

However — as the November 6 forum-goers were to learn — bad laws and a worse Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project Supreme Court ruling have stretched the definition of ‘material support’ beyond common sense, regardless whether any of the subpoenaed activists stepped over today’s absurdly restrictive lines or more serious ones.  As the excellent Defending Dissent October 2010 newsletter wrapup puts it, “The problem is, one can be found guilty of material support for interacting with a group that is not an FTO, but that the government alleges is in cahoots with an FTO.  […] In Columbia, the government deems any trade union and any group that opposes the government to be allied with FARC.”

Quite as disturbingly as the ever-widening definition of “material support,” the warrant seems to suggest that recruitment of individuals to FRSO is itself an actionable crime — and provides the FBI with a legal driftnet to sweep up Kelly’s address book, e-mail, social network contacts, so that the execution of a search warrant for person A becomes an invasion of privacy, chilling of association, and the beginning of FBI dossiers for persons B to Z.   Again, Defending Dissent: “The expansive list of ‘evidence’ sought led one of the lawyers to deem them “kind of unconstitutional and hideous.”

Read the rest of this entry »

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“Law and the Long War,” by Benjamin Wittes – a blog discussion

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th September 2009

Click the image to
place an order for
this book with
Powell’s Books.

This post announces an ambitious and possibly quixotic effort — the attempt of a legal layperson like myself to launch and carry on a discussion about Benjamin Wittes’ “Law and the Long War: The Future of Justice in the Age of Terror,” published in 2008.

Luckily, I’ll be joined in this discussion by my friend “The Talking Dog,” whose legal acumen and training — as well as self-deprecating wit and engaging writing — are always in evidence at his blog of the same name.  “TD’s” interviews of lawyers, policy makers, human rights leaders (most recently with NYU’s Karen Greenberg), and even Guantanamo detainees have been genuine journalism, and are among the finest things the American blogosphere has produced.

Our plan is to take the book chapter by chapter, at no precise schedule other than to take the chapters in sequence.  We hope readers will check Wittes’ book out from the library, borrow it from a friend, or buy a copy for themselves, so they can read along with us and join the discussions we hope for.

We’ve tentatively decided to divide the chapters up as follows:

Announcements – here at newsrackblog and the talking dog
Introduction – discussions at both newsrackblog and the talking dog
Chapter 1.  The Law of September 10 – discussion here at newsrackblog
Chapter 2.  The Administration’s Response – discussion at talking dog
Chapter 3.  The Real Guantanamo – discussion at the talking dog
Chapter 4.  The Necessity and Impossibility of Judicial Review – discussion here at newsrackblog
Chapter 5.  The Case for Congress – discussion here at newsrackblog
Chapter 6.  The Twin Problems of Detention and Trial – discussion at the talking dog
Chapter 7.  An Honest Interrogation Law – discussion at the talking dog
Chapter 8.  Surveillance Law for a New Century – discussion here at newsrackblog
Conclusion – discussions both at newsrackblog and the talking dog

To leave some time for readers to join in (and for me, at least, to gather my thoughts), our first posts about Wittes’ introduction will be sometime around the middle of next week.  At this blog, this post will serve as one “home page” for the overall effort, and the outline above will link to each post as it is written.  We’ll also try to provide “prior chapter” and “next chapter” and other useful navigational links within each post, time permitting.


Why is this worth doing?  I’m tempted to simply answer: what could be more important?  Whether it’s always clear or not, our lives and our rights are both at risk.  We have to evaluate those risks, and decide what to do about them.

For my part, though, this is also partly just an attempt to become more “fluent” in the legal underpinnings of the debates about the habeas corpus and other human rights of detainees, the costs and benefits of the expansion of executive powers,  and the conduct of international relations and military force in this so-called “long war” of ours.

There are also more immediate reasons to do so: Wittes and his book have proved quite influential, perhaps especially of late.  On its publication, the book merited extended discussion at numerous legal blogs, and gained respectful and often warm reviews in the popular media and the academic press.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Takoma Park police license plate scanner policy: no image storage

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th April 2009

The Takoma Park Police Department has issued draft guidelines for the proposed license plate scanner system that are the next best thing to no scanner at all (still my preference): the default policy will be no storage of “scan files” once a given operator’s shift is over.  From the draft:

06 Limitations on Usage:
A. Only officers or employees certified by a Command level officer will be permitted to access the Extract Downloads, develop hot lists, or operate the device. Any such operator will be required to possess authorization to access NCIC and MVA files via the MILES system. Security of the extract downloads will be consistent with other directives, rules, regulations, laws and procedures applying to the use of information from those databases, and will be the responsibility of the operator.

B. Scanning Missions will not last any longer than the shift duration of the operator. If a successive officer takes over use of the vehicle in which the ALPR Scanner is mounted, or otherwise takes over use of the device, they will initiate a new scanning mission after development of a new hot list from the latest extract downloads.

C. Scan Files developed during the mission will be deleted from the device upon completion of the operators shift.

D. It will be a violation of this policy and procedure to download any scan file, without the expressed authorization of the Chief of Police.[…]

(Emphasis added.)  The draft policy was discussed at Monday’s Takoma Park City Council meeting (video link).  Chief Ricucci had courteously sent me a copy of the draft policy a few days earlier, and I was able to propose a few suggestions to strengthen the policy during the general public comment period (and by e-mail).

Chief among these was that the police notify the City Council when the chief of police “expressly authorized” exceptions to this and other default policies (having to do with database lists provided to the scanner, and sharing data with other agencies.)  I was pleased that councilmember Josh Wright and other councilmembers took up some of these suggestions, and that police officials attending the meeting (including Chief Ricucci and Captain Coursey, who attended the forum) appeared to have no problem with them.

I remain skeptical of the need for this system and question the civic wisdom of giving such potentially sweeping surveillance power to law enforcement.  But this outcome, if it holds, is the next best thing to no scanner system at all: one that forgets what it saw at the end of the day.  I don’t like the relatively unencumbered wiggle room for downloading scan files on authorization of the chief of police, but a reporting requirement would at least give people a chance to know that was happening so they could come to a judgment about that.

I may have more to say after reviewing the video of the meeting; it isn’t crystal clear to me what will happen next.  While I’m fairly sure there will be a revised draft policy incorporating some of the suggestions made during the work session, I’m less sure whether that will lead to an immediate vote on the purchase.  It appears that the grant money for the purpose must be collected soon, so that Council — by and large, more sympathetic to the system than I am — feels an incentive to move quickly.

For now, I guess I’ll call this a small win… tempered with regret that we’re choosing to surveille ourselves this way.  But I also appreciate that my concerns were listened to, both by the police and by the City Council.

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Governor, Maryland State Police: “we’ll handle this”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 10th March 2009

ACLU of MarylandLegislative efforts to prevent a repeat of the infamous Maryland State Police spying scandal are coming to a head this week.  Naturally, there are competing bills, and the founding fathers wouldn’t be surprised at how they compare — Governor O’Malley’s preferred bill (HB 311/SB266) stands for “we’ll handle this from here,” while the bill by progressive legislators like State Senator Jamie Raskin and Delegate Sheila Hixson (HB 182/SB256) stands for “no you won’t.”

While the Frosh/O’Malley bill would be better than nothing, it leans dangerously far in the direction of permitting a good deal of what occurred during Maryland State Police’s “amok years” in 2005 and 2006,* and in leaving the door as widely ajar as possible for as much future covert surveillance as possible, all under the catchall term “legitimate law enforcement.” For instance:

(D) The Department shall:
(1) conduct all investigations involving First Amendment activities for a legitimate law enforcement objective […]

(F) An investigation involving First Amendment activities shall be terminated when logistical leads have been exhausted and no legitimate law enforcement purpose justifies the continuance of the investigation. […]

(K) Nothing in this section may be construed to prohibit a Department employee, in the course of the employee’s duties, from visiting any place… that is open to the general public… if the Department employee has a legitimate law enforcement objective.

That might not sound so bad until you realize that what’s legitimate and what isn’t is precisely what was and is at issue — and that it remains completely undefined in this proposed legislation. The Baltimore Sun reported that State Senator Jamie Raskin, by contrast, rightly believes that police need an “explicit guide,” adding:

“Having them write their own rules is not the solution,” Raskin said. “That was the problem.”

Indeed, even “writing their own rules” is being generous — the O’Malley bill doesn’t even seem to require explicit State Police revised rulemakings, settling instead for vague directives about how it might go about its business. Raskin’s bill is better from start to finish, providing specific descriptions of covert surveillance, and requiring specific actions whenever covert surveillance of “protest or advocacy entities” or individuals is envisioned.  To wit,  the State Police chief would have to make “a written finding, including specific factual determinations… that the use of the covert technique is justified because (1) a reasonable, articulable suspicion of a present or planned violation of the law; and (2) a less intrusive method  is not likely to yield satisfactory results .”

As the ACLU of Maryland writes — in a form e-mail you can add your name and thoughts to

It is disturbing that the Administration is promoting a bill (HB 311/ SB 266) that fails in numerous ways to set the necessary standards to protect the First Amendment while opposing legislation that does establish strong standards, HB182/SB256. In fact, the Administration bill would actually condone some of the worst spying that has occurred.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd March 2009

A forum about the civil liberties implications of a proposed license plate scanner system (announced here, on community listservs, and on fliers) was held in Takoma Park on Wednesday, February 25, 2009.  A video of that forum was recorded and uploaded by my friend Michelle Bailey (“Takoma Videotaping“).

Forum participants included:

I’ve compiled a draft transcript of the forum.  The times there (and above) indicate the beginning of the speaker’s comments. A Q&A session began at around 42:23.

Takoma Park City Council member Terry Seamens, Public Safety Committee chair Chuck Thomas, and Takoma/Silver Spring Voice publisher/editor Eric Bond were in the audience, as were Takoma Park Police Department’s Chief Ronald Ricucci and Captain Edward Coursey.

Other resources for this forum:

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A forum on license plate scanners

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 27th February 2009

The panel

From the left: me, Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior
counsel at the Constitution Project, David Zirin
(The Nation, Campaign against the Death Penalty),
Johnny Barnes, executive director of the National
Capital Area ACLU.
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew
For a slideshow of all forum photos, click here.
[All photos are by Madeleine Nephew
— thank you, Maddie!]

As advertised, I was joined by Sharon Franklin, David Zirin, and Johnny Barnes on Wednesday evening for a forum about the TPPD license plate scanner proposal.  (For background, see my prior posts on this issue or this resource page.)  [UPDATE – video here] [UPDATE – transcript here]

I thank each of them very much again for coming; their discussions were on point and helpful, as was a lively question and answer period with the audience, which included one councilmember, a public safety committee chair, and — by advance request  — Chief Ricucci and Captain Coursey from the police department.

My publicity efforts were not as successful as I’d have liked, but both local press and friends were on hand; my friend Michelle videotaped the proceedings as did the ACLU; assuming there aren’t technical difficulties, that will eventually be online for others to view for themselves.

I prepared some introductory remarks.  An excerpt:

…So far, we have had an upside down process: a grant application for a device before a community decision to seek one, an agency drafting policy after the money is in hand rather than a legislative body doing so before, all before consideration of alternatives.

Some say I’m making “much ado about nothing.” I disagree, and I think after tonight many of you will as well. A decision to subject ourselves to automated surveillance ought to be a very, very hard decision, not an easy one. I think it moots the 4th Amendment and chills freedom of speech and of assembly — especially in a permissive legal environment where we will have little control or even knowledge of how that surveillance is expanded, reused, or shared with federal agencies armed with “National Security Letters.” Even if approved — as I personally hope it will not be — hard questions would remain: when and where to deploy it, which wanted tag databases to download, what kind of safeguards to set up and who will run them, what penalties to impose if those safeguards are violated.

We in Takoma Park do not need to look to what’s merely permissible to police departments. We can also say how we want our community to be, and what safeguards on our rights we will insist on.

The forum produced a few new points of specific information from my perspective.  First, Captain Coursey noted that the city attorney was looking into the question of whether data collected in this fashion could be compelled to be divulged to other agencies.

Second, Chief Ricucci and Captain Coursey appeared to me to be saying that (a) the grant application did not request funding for so-called “back office” hardware and software that would facilitate the reanalysis of stored data, and (b) that they were thereby saying they did not envision doing so.

While that was comforting to me, Captain Coursey also clearly wanted the door kept open for that, pleading for no “rush to judgment” on that score.  Also, the lack of dedicated funding for storage isn’t all that telling.  As the TPPD’s own press release last December stated, “50,000 and 60,000 plate reads equal one gigabyte of hard drive space.” Assuming the interface with the squad car device can be bridged, off-the-shelf PCs could store millions of images; assuming the scanned image tag/time/location records can be downloaded as well, even more simple data records could be stored.  The software requirements are probably not insurmountable either; a simple file/directory system might do, or records could be stored in a conventional database.

But given the open, frank, and cooperative impression both officers made on me and the rest of the audience, perhaps both the press release and the worksession discussion of storage and reanalysis were more about capabilities than firm intentions.  I’m willing to believe they don’t seek this, and that they can support an explicit “no storage” provision by City Council for the device.
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