In the foreground to President Obama’s major address today on his evolving sense of the boundary between legitimate national security and illegal surveillance, there came this week a reminder of New York City’s own surveillance state, in a press release from the city’s Law Department about the multimillion-dollar settlement struck with people who were arbitrarily arrested during demonstrations around the 2004 Republican National Convention.
The settlement was the bad news, according to the Law Department. The good news, for them, was that the city prevailed on all the systemic issues the RNC lawsuits raised—about mass arrests, about “no-standing” and “demonstration” zones, about “keeping sensitive and confidential intelligence documents from being disclosed” and “the importance of the intelligence gathered leading up to the RNC, which was pivotal in shaping the policies adopted during the event.” That intelligence included infiltrating protest groups and sending detectives to other states to spy on leftist groups that were planning to attend the convention.
When those clandestine activities were publicized in 2007, they were shocking. Now, we shrug. In part that’s because New Yorkers have gotten used to a redefinition of the line between police power and private liberty. But it’s also because government spying is inherently secretive—so we don’t have anything like a complete picture of whom the NYPD has spied on since.
Those facts frame Mayor de Blasio’s approach to intelligence gathering and civil liberties. During the campaign, de Blasio was forced to address the surveillance of Muslims, which we know involved cultivating informers who helped lure a few Muslim New Yorkers into terrorist plots; spying on mosques and restaurants; keeping tabs on youth groups; and sending detectives across state lines to gather material and maintaining something called “the demographic unit.”
Back in 2012, de Blasio defended the NYPD’s approach. “Based on what I’ve learned, I believe that the NYPD is currently limiting its work to the pursuit of specific leads and that there is a substantial legal review process connected to those decisions,” he said in a speech reported by The Wall Street Journal.
In 2013, he changed his tune, telling a Muslim audience in October that he’d end the broad surveillance of their community. “The efforts of surveillance have to be based on specifically specific information, and obviously you need to go through a careful vetting process,” de Blasio said, according to CBS.
Now that de Blasio is mayor, will he actually roll the spying back? That’s one question. A better one is, How will we know?