Occupy Wall Street

Government Waste: DHS Documents Reveal Widespread Surveillance of Occupy Movement

The department tasked with preventing terrorism spent a lot of time and money monitoring peaceful activist demonstrations.

Federal documents reveal the Department of Homeland Security conducted daily monitoring of peaceful Occupy protests and encampments in 2011.

The memos, obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) through FOIA, show that the DHS routinely observed “Occupy-type” protests, including those deemed “peaceful” by federal agents. In 252 pages of department exchanges, agents overwhelmingly report “uneventful,” “peaceful” and “orderly” demonstrations.

The Federal Protective Service, a division of DHS tasked with protecting federal buildings, handled a good portion of the Occupy beat. DHS ordered FPS agents to write “Daily Intelligence Briefings” noting several types of events, including “Peaceful Activist Demonstrations.” One FPS memo on a protest sponsored by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, proposed “To recognize the African slaves used to build Wall Street,” raised no indications that it would “be violent or that protestors will attempt to damage federal property.”

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An email exchange shows DHS quickly jumped to see whether its agents were involved in clashes between police and protesters at Occupy Oakland. “Youtube has a lot of videos of the incident last night. Some of those videos show the exterior of the federal buildings but none which I found showed any of our personal,” reads one report.

PCJF says at least one document reveals that DHS conducted “off the books” intelligence gathering on the movement. “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,” writes a DHS agent regarding the Occupy movement in New England. 

The documents obviously don’t provide a full story of DHS’ Occupy operation. PCJF legal director Carl Messineo believes the FOIA’d documents represent “a fraction of what the government possesses.” Moreover, the revealed memos underwent heavy redaction processes, with chunks, even pages, clipped out. For example, here is a list of “significant events” that occurred in FPS Region 4, based in the U.S. Southeast (courtesy PCJF):

These monitoring efforts happened all across the country. As PSJF notes, “The new documents reveal DHS surveillance of protests in Asheville, NC; Tampa; Ft. Lauderdale; Jacksonville; Lansing, MI; Denver; Kansas City; Los Angeles; Boston; Dallas; Houston; Minneapolis; Miami; Jersey City; Phoenix; Lincoln, Nebraska; Chicago; Salt Lake City; Detroit and others.”

The Department of Homeland Security, established after September 11, 2001, lists five main tasks in its mission statement, including, (1) the prevention of terrorism, (2) border security, (3) immigration enforcement, (4) cybersecurity and (5) disaster response. It remains to be seen how monitoring “peaceful activist demonstrations,” like the Occupy movement, pertains to any of those tasks.

Last December, PCJF obtained FBI documents revealing it also monitored Occupy activities. Organization director Mara Verheyden-Hilliard believes the federal agencies reveal priorities contrary to their stated purpose:

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. 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.

One scene described in an October 6, 2011 memo about Occupy Tampa reveals what the federal government appears to be afraid of: “Bull horns, chants, and drums were used to communicate a variety of messages regarding anti-Wall Street, anti-big banks, anti-war, and anti-government.”


Steven Hsieh is an editorial assistant at AlterNet and writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @stevenjhsieh.