Will Big Brother Be Watching Denver’s Democratic National Convention?

The New York Times reported on Sunday that for a year prior to the 2004 Republican National Convention, the city’s police spied extensively around the country on people and groups who planned to protest peacefully at that convention.

With the Democratic Convention scheduled here next summer, would the Denver Police Department engage in the same kind of activity?

They have in the past.Revelations by the ACLU of Colorado in 2002 that the city’s police were spying on peaceful protest groups resulted in an agreement between the police and the group to limit police surveillance to actual suspected criminal activity, and not to include groups which are simply planning to exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech.

“According to the that policy, there are two requirements before they can collect intelligence about how people exercise their First Amendments rights,” says ACLU of Colorado’s legal director Mark Silverstein. “The information has to be directly relevant to criminal activity, and they have to have facts that amount to a reasonable suspicion that individuals or groups are in involved in that activity.”

The New York Police went around the country to gather information on possible protesters. The Denver police probably don’t have the resources to conduct that kind of extensive spying operation. But if city police were assigned to gather information outside the city of Denver’s jurisdiction, would the agreement guidelines still be in force?

Silverstein says, “The agreement covers the employees of the Denver Police Department. I don’t think that the employees are freed from the department’s guidelines just by leaving the state.”

Of New York-style intelligence-gathering plans, Denver Police Department public information officer Sonny Jackson said, “I don’t know where we are with that at this time. I can’t comment on it. We haven’t agreed on what we will release at this time.”

Asked if these kinds of intelligence-gathering operations were being considered, Jackson said, “I can’t say. That goes into our operations. I haven’t been briefed on it, so I can’t comment.”

There currently are two Denver police officers who are assigned to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. These officers are supposed to be governed by the ACLU-brokered agreement, and the Denver Chief of Police has agreed that they are, but the FBI has refused to release any documents to the auditor who is monitoring the agreement’s performance, Silverstein says.

In May, 2003, then-City Attorney Wallace Wortham argued that the agreement does not apply to officers assigned to the JTTF.  Wortham said the information-collection activities of these officers are governed solely FBI rules.

“The FBI is not bound by the settlement agreement,” Silverstein says. “After 9/11, the FBI under Ashcroft” — John Ashcroft, U.S. Attorney General at the time — “relaxed the guidelines that regulated the gathering of political intelligence. They can operate under rules that are much more lenient than the city police … Our freedom of information requests have shown that the FBI has played a role in gathering information about who might participate in demonstrations.

“We’ve gotten FBI files that show the JTTF was gathering information in who was interested in perfectly legal demonstrations at the meeting here of the International Chamber of Commerce. That was put in the files and sent to the domestic terrorism unit in Washington, D.C.”

While the ACLU agreement with Denver should limit the local police in their intelligence gathering on legal, peaceful protest, “No one should remove the fear that people engaged in legal First Amendment activity won’t be spied upon,” Silverstein says. “There are other agencies that are gathering intelligence information about how people peacefully and lawfully exercise their First Amendment rights.”

FBI special agent Renee Vonder Haar says that while her agency will set up “joint command posts” for security at the Democratic National Convention, the U.S. Secret Service will have the primary role in convention security and in “ferreting out threats to the DNC itself, if there are any.”

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Dan Whipple

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