Inside the Time's UP! office on Houston Street in Manhattan, pictures of people taking part in an environmental protest line an old refrigerator. In one, a man with short hair and a chiseled physique is talking on his cellphone. In another, a large man wields a video camera.
The people at Time's UP!, an environmental activist group, suspect these men are not protesters at all, but rather plainclothes police officers. "We say these people are spying, and they're definitely being assisted by the police if they're not police themselves," says Bill DiPaola, director of Time's UP!
Is that concern paranoia? Or is it skepticism in this post-9/11 era of increased surveillance?
Political activists from New York to Colorado to California report that they believe police and FBI surveillance of their activities has increased markedly since the terror attacks 4-1/2 years ago since Congress approved the USA Patriot Act loosening some of the strictures on law enforcement. They include environmental groups like Time's UP!, peace activists in Pittsburgh, and even a police union protesting for higher wages in New York City.
To try to find out if law officers are spying on them, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed Freedom of Information requests for more than 150 groups and individuals in more than 20 states who believe their first amendment rights are being violated.
Time's UP! is one of the groups that says the alleged surveillance is aimed at intimidating them. They acknowledge public events can be watched by anyone but they're concerned police have crossed the line into inappropriate spying to discourage people's from publicly criticizing government policies.
Local police and the FBI insist that none of their activities is aimed at chilling political speech. All investigations are conducted under strict guidelines put in place after abuses were documented during the Civil Rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Before any investigation of a political group proceeds, law officers require reasonable suspicion or information that an individual or a group is involved in criminal or terrorist-related activities.
"Our only interest is in preventing, disrupting, and defeating terrorist-related operations or criminal activity - and that's through appropriate investigations that are conducted in accordance with attorney general guidelines," says Bill Carter, an FBI spokesman.
Throughout American history, and particularly during times of conflict, the balance between civil rights and national security has shifted toward the latter and later come under scrutiny. From World War II through the cold war to the sociopolitical upheaval of the 1960s, repeated civil rights violations occurred in the name of national security - from people being imprisoned and denied jobs for their political statements to the infiltration of political groups.
"We're nowhere near there now. Throughout the 20th century, we ... built better protections against intrusions on constitutional rights," says Alasdair Roberts, professor at the Maxwell School in Syracuse University in New York and author of "Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age. "Nevertheless we can't take these gains for granted, and we have to take these issues of surveillance seriously."
The FBI says peace and environmental activists are confusing legitimate investigation of potential terrorist or criminal activity with free-speech violations. Peace activists say law enforcement is misusing the fear of terrorism to impede legitimate speech.
One recent case involves the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice in Pittsburgh. It says FBI documents it obtained prove that they were being watched in an investigation of antiwar activities. A heavily redacted memo states that the center holds "daily leaflet distribution activities" and is "a left-wing organization advocating, among many political causes, pacifism."
"The memo may say it's an international terrorism matter at the top, but when you read the text and the subject it's clearly an investigation of antiwar activity," says Jim Kleissler, of the Merton Center. "They clearly tried to link terrorism to public dissent."
Mr. Carter says that the investigation was not of the organization, but of an individual. Once it was determined that individual was not involved with the Merton Center it ended, he says.
The number of Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF), cooperative teams of local, state, and federal officers, jumped from fewer than 30 prior to the 2001 terrorist attack to more than 80 today. The Merton Center says it was investigated under a JTTF jurisdiction. Professor Roberts says these JTTFs have the greatest potential for constitutional violations because much of their activity is classified offering little opportunity for public accountability.
"It's difficult to appraise whether the activities are reasonable or not unless there's a certain amount of transparency," he says. "Sometimes you can't reveal law enforcement activity, but it's generally possible to get a general broad outline of what it is."
In New York, the activists at Time's Up! say the police are using surveillance to intimidate them. Their members are part of a monthly pro-environment bike ride around the city, where sometimes hundreds of people show up. The police want the group to get a parade permit. Time's UP! argues that it's a spontaneous gathering that takes place in 400 cities around the world. The courts have so far sided with the protesters. The police say they're simply trying to maintain order and that plainclothes police are vital to that goal.
Antiwar and anticorporate protesters have also filed suit against the NYPD, charging that plainclothes police behavior during the Republican National Convention in 2004 and at the World Economic Forum in 2002 was aggressive, intimidating, and designed to agitate the crowd. NYPD spokesman Paul Browne disagrees, saying the officers were there to maintain order.
"We don't want the chaos of an arrest spilling into the rest of the march," says Deputy Commissioner Browne, explaining that plainclothes officers mingle with the crowd. The goal is to allow them to identify and separate anarchists and others who may want the protest to turn violent from the lawful protesters.
The NYPD is also fending off a lawsuit from its own police officer's union. The Patrol Benevolent Association (PBA) says the NYPD sent Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) investigators to take pictures of protesting officers during contract negotiations with the city.
"The concern is that they're trying to intimidate our members, the implication being that you could be disciplined for asserting your first amendment rights," says Michael Murray, a lawyer with the PBA.
The NYPD denies that and says the IAB officers were there to maintain order.
"If you're a cop and you're confronted with your union leader saying, 'Hey, step aside, we're the police,' that could put a cop in a difficult position," says Browne. "The IAB are there to ensure there's no misconduct by the police, they're the police that police the police."