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Surveillance Makes You Paranoid | The Nation

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Surveillance Makes You Paranoid

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Was it scoop or was it plant?

About the Author

Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

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The New York Times certainly thought it had a scoop with its big headline on top of a front-page story leading the paper. It read "City Police Spied Broadly Before G.O.P. Convention--Covert Operations Across Nation and Globe Investigated Protestors Plans in '04."

The Times reported, "For at least a year before the 2004 Republican National Convention, teams of undercover New York City police officers traveled to cities across the country, Canada and Europe to conduct covert observations of people who planned to protest at the convention, according to police records and interviews.... These [the spied upon] included members of street theater companies, church groups and antiwar organizations, as well as environmentalists and people opposed to the death penalty, globalization and other government policies. Three New York City elected officials were cited in the reports."

This is the latest of a cascade of reports that police at every level of government are spying, photographing, wiretapping, snooping, tracking and labeling thousands upon thousands of people. Each of these reports reaches the public with the fanfare of a journalistic coup. Intrepid investigative reporters are supposed to have dug out these secret police activities, and no doubt the reporters themselves think that is what happened.

But did it?

Is everybody in police work incapable of keeping a secret? From the FBI, the CIA, the NSA all the way out to the NYPD, we get a never-ending stream of stories about what are said to be secret activities. At some point, however, you have to begin to wonder.

How hard do the various police organizations work at keeping their secrets secret? If you have a certain kind of politics, there is a possible advantage to letting your secrets escape.

Letting it be known that all kinds of people from all walks of life may be under police surveillance is frightening, intimidating and paralyzing. Some people will react with defiance at finding out that there may be a police spy in the congregation of the church, synagogue or mosque they attend, but many others will not. They will be scared into skipping the next meeting to discuss Middle Eastern affairs or to plan the next antiwar or anti-World Bank or anti-GOP demonstration.

A good way to cut down on the size of the crowd or to get people to keep their traps shut is to let it be known that they are being watched and marked. It would be impolitic to have the FBI director or the New York police commissioner call a press conference at which the general public was warned the CCTV cameras are everywhere. We have not reached a point where the chief of police can tell the media that "we have ways of monitoring what you do."

The same message can be gotten out more deviously and less controversially. For example, an official could leave the information about "secret" police activities on top of a desk in a room where reporters sometimes venture. Or a false whistleblower snitch could set up a reporter. Let the poor, over-enthusiastic chump of an investigative journalist believe he or she is glomming on to information not meant for his or her eyes.

But none of this may be true. Maybe the cops really did leak news of this surveillance to the Times. The origin of these police spy stories may be as simple as that or maybe not, but that would be a secret they would keep, wouldn't they?

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