Internal Documents Show the Department of Homeland Security Tried Pretty Hard Not to Monitor Occupy Wall Street

The Department of Homeland Security struggled to avoid monitoring or suppressing the Occupy Wall Street movement last year, despite being bombarded with requests from various federal agencies for intelligence on the protests, according to documents released via the Freedom of Information Act.

The documents show that officials in DHS's offices of Intelligence Analysis and Civil Rights and Civil Liberties were keenly aware of the legal and constitutional issues raised by federal agencies monitoring political protesters, and sought to tamp down the appetite for intelligence on the Occupy protesters from their colleagues in DHS and other federal agencies that rely on DHS bulletins and intelligence.

The records also show that the efforts weren't always successful—there are several instances of DHS gathering and distributing intelligence on Occupy protesters without much justification. DHS released 340 redacted pages in response to a Freedom of Information Request we filed for records concerning the Occupy movement; it characterized them as an "interim release," suggesting that more records will be forthcoming.

According to the documents, officials in the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties took a hard line on curbing DHS intel-gathering on Occupy after the Pittsburgh Office of Emergency Management released a bulletin, apparently produced with DHS help, on potential threats the movement posed. "Both myself and [redacted] are somewhat concerned that several items contained in this Intel Bulletin might be advocating surveillance and other countermeasures to be employed against activities protected under the 1st Amendment," wrote one official in an October 7, 2011.

Later, the Office of Civil Rights drafted guidance for the entire department on how to approach the protests, stressing that "DHS should not report on activities when the basis for reporting is political speech." One official in the Intelligence Analysis Directorate flat-out instructed her colleagues to ignore any requests for information about the protests: "We have received a number of questions and requests for information regarding Occupy Wall Street from a number of component partners and intelligence officers. Recognizing that this is a first amendment protected activity, we have recommended (on an ad hoc basis when we received requests) that our Intelligence Officers refer inquiries to Fusion Centers and avoid the topic altogether."

In October 2011, the documents show, the Los Angeles Fusion Center (one of dozens of surveillance centers that coordinate state, local, and federal intelligence) sent a query to DHS's intelligence division seeking information on "any DHS products identifying and/or describing criminal activities and/or potential civil disobedience associated with the Occupy Wall Street protests nationwide" and the number of "arrests...made, type and number of weapons confiscated, communication used to plan these crimes, etc." The intended recipient of the intelligence, the request said, was "a federal partner of the Fusion Center at LA." The intelligence division flatly denied the request: "The information being requested does not fall within the scope of I&A's authorities. Arrests being made at these protests are a criminal matter and the protesters are engaged in constitutionally protected activity.... DHS should not report on activities where the basis for reporting is political speech."

But while the intelligence and civil rights divisions may have been wary of running afoul of the Constitution, other parts of DHS's massive bureaucracy weren't so dainty. As one intelligence division official put it in a November memo: "[We] scrupulously avoided any connection with the Occupy movement/protests/dismantlings. We cannot speak for any individual fusion center or other departmental component." One "spot report" from the Battle Creek, Michigan, Fusion Center about a 300-person protest shows that "FPS [Federal Protective Service] inspectors are on site and monitoring the situation." The records also show that the Secret Service's Intelligence Division was keeping tabs on protesters in New York. And DHS issued several intelligence bulletins (one of which it was forced to recall for coming too close to monitoring dissent) about Occupy and affiliated Anonymous protesters.

The Examiner's Rick Ellis stirred up some outrage last year by reporting, based on the claims of "a Justice Department official," that DHS staffers were involved in conference calls among various mayors coordinating the nationwide crackdown on Occupy encampments that went down in November. Ellis quickly backtracked the claim in various updates. The documents released today show pretty definitively that no one from DHS headquarters played a role in the crackdown—though that doesn't mean that officials at various fusion centers weren't involved.

And these are not all the documents DHS has on Occupy. In fact, one memo released today shows that DHS staffers were aware almost immediately how good the internal concern for civil liberties would play to the media and public, and advised fast-tracking the release of documents showing how much care was taken:

I understand we have already received some FOIA requests regarding our possible reporting of the "Occupy..." protests. I think should the FOIA experts find it appropriate to release information about the manner in which this issue was managed within DHS, it could only be perceived as a positive by those in the public who closely observer the Department.

I'd reserve final judgment for the rest of the documents. Here are the records released today: