NEW YORK -- A Department of Homeland Security division produced daily briefings on "peaceful activist demonstrations" during the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests, documents released Tuesday revealed.
The 252 pages of documents were obtained in a March 14 letter from DHS by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which in November 2011 launched a campaign to unearth public records that would show whether the federal government was spying on Occupy Wall Street. FBI records obtained by the group in December showed that the bureau investigated Occupy as a potential "domestic terrorism" threat.
"Taken together, the two sets of documents paint a disturbing picture of federal law enforcement agencies using their vast power in a systematic effort to surveil and disrupt peaceful demonstrations," Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, said in a statement. "The federal agencies’ actions were not because Occupy represented a 'terrorist threat' or a 'criminal threat,' but rather because it posed a significant grassroots political challenge to the status quo."
Many of the new documents relate to the Federal Protective Service, a Homeland Security division charged with providing security for federal buildings, including courthouses. It was the protective service "Threat Management Division," the documents show, that asked its regional intelligence analysts on Oct. 21, 2011, to report on "peaceful activist demonstrations," along with "domestic terrorist acts."
The Federal Protective Service report released Tuesday highlights an Occupy Philly demonstration against a speech by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) that was canceled because of the protest plans. The Homeland Security document noted that the planned demonstration "should not affect" any federal government buildings, but reported on it anyway.
In New York City, one document showed, a high-level Federal Protective Service official observed that "several law enforcement organizations have undertaken steps to discontinue Occupy encampments" on Nov. 14, just hours before the camp in Zuccotti Park was cleared by the New York Police Department. Regional directors should, the official wrote, "assess the potential impact" of steps made by their "local law enforcement partners."
Federal Protective Service has long been a source of concern for civil liberties advocates. Homeland Security's own Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has previously concluded, in response to a March 2006 protective service bulletin, that the division "failed to differentiate adequately between civil activist and violent extremist organizations." But it said the protective service had provided assurances that it would make that distinction in the future.
It wasn't just Philadelphia and New York City under Homeland Security watch, the documents show. The department also was watching Occupy in places that included Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, and Tampa, Fla.
In one instance, a Homeland Security agent monitoring Occupy wrote in an email, "This meeting should be finishing up soon and I'll have access to a non-DHS computer that will allow me to do more looking." That note may suggest the agent was engaged in "off the books" intelligence gathering, Partnership for Civil Justice Fund said.
The documents are heavily redacted and in many cases leave unclear just what agents were investigating, or why. A Homeland Security spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The online investigative website Truthout reported on the Homeland Security documents last month.
Carl Messineo, legal director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, said in a statement that his group believes the latest documents represent "a fraction of what the government possesses."