City Asks Court Not to Unseal Police Spy Files
Lawyers for the city, responding to a request to unseal records of police surveillance leading up to the 2004 Republican convention in New York, say that the documents should remain secret because the news media will "fixate upon and sensationalize them," hurting the city's ability to defend itself in lawsuits over mass arrests.
In papers filed in federal court last week, the city's lawyers also say that the documents could be "misinterpreted" because they were not intended for the public.
"The documents were not written for consumption by the general public," wrote Peter Farrell, senior counsel in the city's Law Department. "The documents contain information filtered and distilled for analysis by intelligence officers accustomed to reading intelligence information."
Because the materials have not yet been used to decide or argue any issues in the civil lawsuits, Mr. Farrell said, "there is no right of public access."
The documents show that the Police Department's Intelligence Division sent undercover detectives around the city, the country and the world to collect information on political activists and others planning to demonstrate at the 2004 convention, according to a sampling of records reviewed by The New York Times that were the subject of an article yesterday. The records included intelligence digests and field reports from detectives, known as DD5s.
Those records showed that some of the surveillance was conducted on groups that planned to disrupt the convention, but the bulk of it was on groups and people who expressed no apparent intention to break the law. In at least some cases, the reports were shared with other law enforcement agencies.
Before monitoring political activity, the police must have some indication of wrongdoing, a federal court judge has said.
Yesterday a spokesman for the Police Department reiterated an earlier statement that the surveillance was conducted lawfully and that the preparations helped keep order when large crowds of demonstrators gathered in the city the week of the convention.
Christopher Dunn, the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the revelations of widespread surveillance would increase pressure for the records' release. "People all over the country will want these documents to see if they were spied upon," he said. "That will make the debate about releasing them all the more important."
In late January, the city turned over about 600 pages of intelligence digests to the civil liberties union and other lawyers suing the city on behalf of people who say they were wrongly arrested and detained during the convention. The documents are under court seal, but Mr. Dunn and a lawyer for The Times have asked a federal court magistrate to make them public.
City lawyers have described the intelligence documents as central to the city's defense.
"They detail what information the N.Y.P.D. relied on in formulating its policies," Gerald C. Smith, an assistant corporation counsel with the Law Department, wrote in a letter filed in federal court last month. He said the intelligence helped the police forecast how many people were coming to New York for the convention and had spoken about breaking the law.
Moreover, Mr. Smith wrote, the intelligence showed the city was justified in applying intensive scrutiny to the 1,806 people arrested during the convention, including fingerprinting more than a thousand people who faced charges no more serious than traffic tickets. Some were detained as long as two days for minor offenses.
"The decisions to adopt those policies were based in large part upon intelligence that had been gathered regarding the number of individuals planning to attend the R.N.C. in some capacity and the number of groups and individuals intending to, or at least professing to intend to, engage in unlawful behavior," Mr. Smith wrote.
In ruling that some of that information could be used by the city for its defense, a federal magistrate judge said that a debate over security and First Amendment rights would come to a head in the litigation.
"The questions posed by these cases have great public significance," the judge, James C. Francis IV of Federal District Court in Manhattan, wrote on March 12. "At issue is the proper relationship between the free speech rights of protesters and the means used by law enforcement officials to maintain public order."
One group that learned it had been the subject of an intelligence report, Billionaires for Bush, offered a lighthearted response to the news. The group, a satirical troupe, dresses in tuxedos and gowns to provide faux endorsements of the administration.
Marco Ceglie, a national co-chairman who performs as Monet Oliver DePlace, said a member of the group known as Meg A. Buck had issued a statement: "We suspect they were looking for stock tips."
Copyright 2007 The New York Times