Domestic Spying Lawsuit Filed in Michigan Rejected

A lawsuit filed last August in Michigan challenging the legality of the Bush administration’s domestic spying program has been rejected by a federal appeals court. Earlier today, the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals sent the lawsuit back to the US District Court in Detroit to be dismissed following a 2-1 ruling in the Circuit Court that the plaintiffs had no standing to sue because they did not prove that they were victims of government surveillance. The District Court had ruled that the program was unconstitutional and that it violated rights to privacy and free speech and violated the separation of powers.

Earlier this week, a lawsuit filed by the New York Times requesting documents pertaining to the domestic surveillance program was dismissed with judges ruling that government agencies could withhold the documents from the public in order to protect intelligence sources and methods.

Documents Released Showing Extensive Surveillance of Anti-RNC Protestors by NYPD

rnc protest documents (photo)

On Wednesday, the New York Civil Liberties Union released hundreds of pages of documents showing widespread surveillance of political groups before and during the 2004 Republican National Convention (RNC) in New York City. The documents show extensive and detailed surveillance of protestors via the Internet, infiltration of events and meetings, and research into tactics used at previous demonstrations. Based on the documents, the New York Police Department (NYPD) began the surveillance in October of 2003 and conducted broad intelligence gathering operations that focused on organizations, websites, individuals, and other targets. The documents discuss a variety of topics ranging from tactics expected to be employed to individuals whom the NYPD believed would be attending the protest.

The New York Civil Liberties Union described the program as “broad, clumsy, and often unlawful” charging that the NYPD “failed to differentiate between unlawful behavior and behavior that is not only lawful but should in fact be cherished and protected.” Attorneys will now review the documents to see if they violate the federal case Handschu vs. Special Services Division that regulates police surveillance of political demonstrations and activities. Earlier this year the NYPD’s video surveillance efforts were determined to violate the Handschu case.

Hearing Held in Michigan Regarding NSA Spying

On June 12 in Detroit, the ACLU presented arguments that the Bush administration domestic surveillance program, operated by the National Security Agency (NSA), is illegal. The hearing is part of a lawsuit filed in Michigan by the ACLU and a part of a series of twenty lawsuits filed around the country by the ACLU.

On June 12, a hearing took place in federal court in Detroit in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Michigan in January against the National Security Agency (NSA). The lawsuit, filed as part of campaign being conducted by the ACLU on behalf of journalists, scholars, attorneys, and non-profit organizations, is one of twenty lawsuits filed across the country against the NSA’s domestic surveillance program. The June 12 arguments focused on the legality of the program with a July 10 hearing scheduled in response to a government request for dismal citing their argument that arguing the case could compromise “state secrets.” However, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary L. Moss, has argued that the government is “hiding behind” the “state secrets” provision to cover up the fact that the program is illegal. In court last week, the ACLU argued that the program violates the First and Fourth Amendment rights of United States citizens and by illegally circumventing the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act, undermines the separation of powers.

The ACLU has publicized the story of Nazih Hassan, an Arab-American, as an example of the type of person who is a potential target in Michigan of NSA surveillance. Hassan, who became a legal resident of the United States in 2001, is employed as a technology consultant in Ypsilanti who also is extensively involved in working for peace and justice in his community. According to information provided by the ACLU, Hassan has publicly spoken against the war in Iraq, the detention of Muslims, and the infringement on Muslims’ civil liberties. Because of his activism and his communications with family, friends, and activists overseas, Hassan is concerned that he may be a target of government surveillance. Hassan has stated that the NSA program has made him “reluctant and fearful to discuss current events” with the aforementioned people. Other targets of surveillance represented in ACLU suits around the country also believe that they have been targeted for their political activities and beliefs.

The Ann Arbor-based news program BlackBox Radio aired a report this week on the lawsuit with background information and commentary from Ann Beeson, who argued the case on June 12 in Michigan. Beeson talks at length about how President George W. Bush and the federal government have argued that “executive power” allows for the warrant-less wiretapping. She analyzes this position, explaining that despite extensive usage by the Bush administration to justify everything from the detention of thousands of Middle Eastern men after 9/11 to torture, the “executive power” defense has no legal basis. No such power is outlined in the United States’ constitution, and as Beeson points out, the constitution was written in the context of colonial reaction to King George who was raiding houses in order to look for a reason to through colonists in jail and that First and Fourth Amendments were specifically designed to protect citizens from government snooping. Additionally, the separation of powers was written into the constitution to prevent the centralization of power within the executive branch.

The laws governing surveillance—the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)—establish clear guidelines that the government must follow in order to conduct surveillance. The ACLU has argued that the violation of the FISA laws after the Congress rejected the Bush administration’s request for increased surveillance powers, was illegal and that it has caused “concrete and extensive harm” by interfering with the ability of reporters to report on the war on terror or defend clients. Despite the Bush administration’s claims that FISA is occasionally too restrictive and hence must be ignored, of the 20,000 requests for domestic wire tapping surveillance since FISA’s passage twenty-five years ago, only 5 have been rejected.

For more on the Michigan court case and other NSA cases, visit the ACLU’s NSA Lawsuit site.

Commentary: Why Government Spying Doesn’t Bother Me

Jeff Smith’s February 2006 column for Recoil Magazine has been posted. In this month’s column, Jeff discusses the media’s coverage of government spying and the history of such spying in the United States:

At this point one is tempted to just shake their head in disbelief or disgust over these documented instances, but that may be due to the fact that there exists a historical amnesia when it comes to US government spying on its own citizens. US government spying on its own citizens is not an anomaly, but a part of our country’s history. Nearly one hundred years ago several thousand US citizens and residents were targeted for harassment, surveillance, being thrown in jail, and in many cases even deported. In what were known as the Palmer raids many people were targeted either because they spoke out against the US entry into World War I or because they were associated with international labor groups, particularly the International Workers of the World (IWW).

Most of us are familiar with the McCarthy “Red Scare” years, but US government spying on its citizens doesn’t as easily bring to mind the round up of Japanese-Americans during WWII or the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign of the late 1950s through the 1970s. One reason for this indifference is because while the McCarthy hearings focused on White liberals, the FBI’s campaign focused on the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Puerto Rican Independence movement and the American Indian Movement. When minorities are targeted as subjects of government spying or harassment, it seems to garner less indignation, even when this COINTELPRO campaign involved the wiretapping of Dr. Martin Luther King and the assassination of Black Panther organizers like Fred Hampton. The same seems to be the case today, where the monitoring of White anti-war organizers in Grand Rapids by the police raised some eyebrows, (even a feature story by Salon.com in February of 2004), but the profiling and government monitoring of Arab, South Asian, and Muslims doesn’t seem to rally sufficient public opposition.

Read “Why Government Spying Doesn’t Bother Me”

Why Government Spying Doesn’t Bother Me

In the days before the holiday break the news was filled with stories about current US government spying. Some reactions were critical, while others, like Representative Pete Hoekstra, defended the President’s decision to spy on US citizens, even without the FISA court’s approval. On December 23, the Press editorial basically supported the governments’ policy to spy on its own people, as long as the “law was followed.” The Press also framed its support of government spying with the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US. While I disagree with that assertion I will not argue that point here as I am not an expert on international terrorism any more than the Press editors.

What I would like to address is the issue of the US governments’ current practice of spying on its own people. I do know something about this as my personal activities and those of some of the organizations I work with have been targeted by this state-sponsored surveillance. With the help of the local branch of the ACLU we were able to get some 400 pages of documentation on local police monitoring of our anti-war activities from early 2003 through 2004. Several of us sifted through the documents and posted what was thought to be most relevant at the local Indy media online source Mediamouse.org.

We found that from the time that Bush came to Grand Rapids in late January of 2003 through the November 2004 elections the GRPD was monitoring and in some cases infiltrating efforts to oppose the US war in Iraq. Several organizations’ web sites were monitored as well as e-mail list serves that were communicating anti-war updates and plans. In more than one of the declassified documents it states that some of protesters were planning “more violent type of demonstrations,” even though there is no evidence that anything more than meetings, marches and civil disobedience was planned. The groups that were planning “peaceful events” were also being monitored by the police as is reflected in the declassified documents. So even the groups that went out of their way to let the police know what their plans entailed, were still subjected to state-sponsored spying.

At this point one is tempted to just shake their head in disbelief or disgust over these documented instances, but that may be due to the fact that there exists a historical amnesia when it comes to US government spying on its own citizens. US government spying on its own citizens is not an anomaly, but a part of our country’s history. Nearly one hundred years ago several thousand US citizens and residents were targeted for harassment, surveillance, being thrown in jail, and in many cases even deported. In what were known as the Palmer raids many people were targeted either because they spoke out against the US entry into World War I or because they were associated with international labor groups, particularly the International Workers of the World (IWW).

Most of us are familiar with the McCarthy “Red Scare” years, but US government spying on its citizens doesn’t as easily bring to mind the round up of Japanese-Americans during WWII or the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign of the late 1950s through the 1970s. One reason for this indifference is because while the McCarthy hearings focused on White liberals, the FBI’s campaign focused on the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Puerto Rican Independence movement and the American Indian Movement. When minorities are targeted as subjects of government spying or harassment, it seems to garner less indignation, even when this COINTELPRO campaign involved the wiretapping of Dr. Martin Luther King and the assassination of Black Panther organizers like Fred Hampton. The same seems to be the case today, where the monitoring of White anti-war organizers in Grand Rapids by the police raised some eyebrows, (even a feature story by Salon.com in February of 2004), but the profiling and government monitoring of Arab, South Asian, and Muslims doesn’t seem to rally sufficient public opposition.

Back to my own case of government monitoring. The anti-war activities of the past few years are not the only time I have been subject to such spying. When the household I live in, the Koinonia House, became a sanctuary for political refugees from Central America in 1987, the authorities showed up at our door. My household was part of the Sanctuary Movement, which consisted mostly of faith-based groups who were willing give safe haven to refugees who were fleeing political violence. Within two weeks of refugees coming to live with us, federal officers were at our front door asking questions. This too was a nation-wide campaign that particularly targeted religious groups in the Southwest and the US-based solidarity group The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).

Several questions come to mind at this point. Maybe the most obvious is “how can our government do this?” Well, as I mentioned it is neither new nor surprising if you understand the difference between paper agreements (legal) and policy. We are all taught that we have certain rights, the right to free speech and the right to assemble, but these are meaningless, particularly in times of war. Spying on dissident voices is what governments do. This is exactly why I am not surprised or bothered by the recent admission of the Bush administration about spying on US citizens. What bothers me more than the spying is the amount of resources and energy expended to monitor the behavior of people like me. How much money did the GRPD spend of taxpayer money to monitor anti-war groups? How many police hours were spent trying to monitor our behavior instead of tracking down sex offenders? Let’s face it I am not a threat to the system, nor the organizations that I belong to, so why did the police spend so much time and money on us?

Last month we celebrated the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., so we could reflect on the fact that King was being monitored as early as 1958. Just after the 1963 march on Washington the head of the FBI’s counter-intelligence program William Sullivan sent a memo stating:

We must mark King now, if we have not before, as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security….it may be unrealistic to limit our actions against King to legalistic proofs that would stand up in court or before Congressional Committees.

Again, I ask you why would our government do this? Why would they spy on a man who was a firm believer in nonviolence? I would submit it was because he was a threat to power. So government monitoring seems to be the norm for when people are publicly critical of their actions. If King were alive today he would most certainly be a subject of government spying. If we are to take seriously his example in the struggle for justice we too should expect to find ourselves amongst those whom the government considers a threat.

Jeff Smith is the director of the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) and has been a 21 year resident of Koinonia House. jsmith@grcmc.org

PATRIOT Act II

Disguised as “National Security” the Bush administration, headed by the ever-watching John Ashcroft, continues to strip away our civil liberties. In the PATRIOT ACT II (among other measures taken by the administration) many of the loopholes left by the first PATRIOT ACT- devastating enough for civil liberties- have been closed and it is now easier for the government to completely overstep the boundaries of individual privacy and civil liberties.

More Information: