Photo: AP/John Minchillo
As Occupy protests swept the country last fall, setting up camp in more than 70 U.S. cites. the growing movement quickly turned into a political and logistical nightmare for the Department of Homeland Security.New documents obtained by Business Insider through a Freedom of Information Act request appear to contradict reports that DHS coordinated the nationwide crackdown on the Occupy movement last November. A series of emails dated from November 16 to November 21, senior officials assert that “”DHS is not actively coordinating with local law enforcement agencies and/or city governments concerning the Occupy encampments writ large,” and that no one from the agency was on the conference call of mayors that discussed the crackdown.
Another email, from the director of communications for DHS Intelligence and Analysis, says that his division “scrupulously avoided any connection with the Occupy movement/protests/dismantlings,” adding that DHS intelligence did not issue any reports or hold any conference calls related to the Occupy movement.
But even as DHS leadership in Washington was careful to avoid top-down involvement in the Occupy protests, an apparently unauthorised memo regarding the potential threats of the movement was circulating through the department’s intelligence channels. The 5-page report, recently obtained by Wikileaks and published by Rolling Stone, states that the growth of the movement will make it difficult to “control protesters” and darkly urges security personnel to exercise “heightened situational awareness.”
According to the emails obtained by Business Insider, the memo was posted to the DHS’s Tripwire intelligence sharing database without being cleared, and was taken down soon after. A link to the report was also included in a email briefing from the Domestic Security Alliance Council, a strategic intelligence partnership between DHS and the FBI.
DHS officials appear to have immediately recognised the potential damaging impact of the report.
“This could be quite unfortunate,” one email reads. “I thought IP had withdrawn this piece. We may need DSAC to immediately withdraw their email and take it off DSAC’s portal if it is posted there.”
The new documents show that senior DHS officials were acutely aware of the First Amendment issues surrounding any type of intelligence gathering on Occupy. In a series of emails dated in late October and early November, the agency adopts the position to avoid reporting on the movement, and leave it up to its local law enforcement partnerships, or Fusion centres, to assess the Occupy threat.
From an email dated October 17, 2011:
“We maintain our longstanding position that DHS should not report on activities when the basis for reporting is political speech. We would also be loath to pass DHS requests for more information on the protests along to the appropriate fusion centres without strong guidance that the vast majority of activities occurring as part of these protests is protected. To do otherwise might give the appearance that DHS is attempting to circumvent existing restrictions, policies, and laws.”
But later emails show that the Fusion centres created a political headache for DHS headquarters, as the agency’s senior leadership struggled to keep their local partners within Constitutional bounds. For example, one email obtained by BI raises concerns about an assessment of Occupy Pittsburgh that “might be advocating surveillance and other countermeasures to be employed against activities protected under the 1st Amendment.” A response to that email notes that those problems were also “an issue with other fusion centres.”
Another email shows DHS officials quickly stepping in to stop a domestic terrorism analyst from writing an intelligence report on Occupy protests in Oregon based on an isolated incident of vehicle arson that was only tenuously connected to the Occupy movement.
The emails illustrate the difficulty the Obama administration had balancing its political affinity with the Occupy movements with the needs of a complex Homeland Security apparatus. DHS tells us that more emails are on the way, so it will be interesting to see how this political tightrope played out.
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