June 9, 2007
ABOUT NEW YORK; Challenges to Security Measures Pull Ghosts From the Shadows
By JIM DWYER
Here is the life of a professional ghost.
At work, you belong to an invisible cadre of men and women whose names do not show up in company files or databases. Your training and promotions are done in private. All orders come from a contact, whose identity is also a secret. Your very means of communication — by phone or computer or in person — can never be discussed.
These are undercover police detectives, as described by David Cohen, New York City’s deputy commissioner for intelligence. This week, Mr. Cohen filed an affidavit with a federal magistrate, pleading for secrecy on the inner workings of a sweeping intelligence operation before the 2004 Republican National Convention.
On the one hand, Mr. Cohen described the absolute need for undercover detectives to head off terrorists who would bomb and maim innocent people.
But he also described how those same extraordinary detectives were needed to spy on people like the antiwar protesters from Syracuse who were talking about coming to the convention and possibly blocking traffic on Seventh Avenue one evening.
The police ”faced a three part co-mingled threat — terrorism, anarchist violence and unlawful civil disobedience,” and so used undercover officers to collect information, Mr. Cohen wrote.
In this vision, one mousetrap fits all: bombers who would kill thousands, and peaceniks who would block traffic.
The wisdom of this approach now faces a very spng test.
Hundreds of people have filed lawsuits against the city, saying they were wrongly arrested during the 2004 convention and held far too long in detention. The city says police officials learned that many people planned to disguise their identities, and so they could not simply issue them summonses for minor offenses. Everyone had to be fingerprinted, prolonging their time behind bars.
Hidden among the ordinary protesters, Mr. Cohen said, could be ”any terrorist operators who might have been in play.”
Not surprisingly, the people suing the city are demanding to see this intelligence about the supposed plans to use fake ID. Inch by inch, the city’s own defense has dragged the secretive work of the undercover detectives into daylight. To expose any more details, Mr. Cohen argued, would ruin the undercover program. This is hardly a trivial argument; the federal government bungled threats it had before Sept. 11, and 2,750 people in New York died. Afterward, the city created its own intelligence operation, led by Mr. Cohen, a former senior official in the Central Intelligence Agency, to monitor events and threats from around the world.
Also on the other side of Mr. Cohen’s binoculars are people like Andy Mager, 46, who came to New York in August 2004 for the convention. Mr. Mager, a staff member of the Syracuse Peace Council, said his group held a retreat in April of that year to ”gather people experienced in nonviolent actions, to plan and engage in actions that were nonviolent but that would be a powerful statement of our opposition to war.”
About 20 people came, including one man from New York City who was not familiar to others. A few days after, a report produced by Mr. Cohen’s intelligence operation said ”sources” had revealed plans by the Peace Council to block traffic. ”That was bogus,” Mr. Mager said. ”It was four months before the event, far too early to be talking about something like that.”
When the city released some intelligence reports last month, Mr. Mager posted pages about the Peace Council on the Internet, annotating what he said were factual errors.
Among them: that the Peace Council had taken part in protests at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. ”We weren’t there,” Mr. Mager said.
The records released so far indicate that the Syracuse Peace Council, which simply chartered two buses for the convention in New York, was similar to many groups under the watch of Mr. Cohen’s operation. The police have said only a handful of demonstrators planned to break the law.
To reveal details like when and where the undercover detectives were used, Mr. Cohen said, would cause damage that ”would be severe and irreversible.”
Christopher Dunn, a lawyer for the New York Civil Liberties Union, which represents seven of the people suing the city, said there was no need to endanger the undercover workers: ”We of course have no objection to the department withholding specific information that may reveal confidential sources or techniques,” Mr. Dunn said.
That would be futile, Mr. Cohen said, and result ”in pages of meaningless snippets of text and punctuation.”