BRIC says it ‘purged’ Occupy Boston spy files

A Boston Police spy agency destroyed all of its controversial surveillance files of the Occupy Boston movement two years ago, it revealed in response to a Gazette public records request.

That may come as a relief to civil liberties organizations that criticized the Boston Regional Intelligence Center’s apparently illegal surveillance of lawful protests and its policy-breaking retention of such files. But that also makes it impossible to know the full extent of the spying, which previous record releases showed sprawling to include completely unrelated academic events at Northeastern University.

And the extent of BRIC’s spying on other, non-Occupy activities remains an open question. The revelation about the Occupy Boston document purge was only a partial response to the Gazette’s request for local spy records, a seven-month quest that included the Boston Police Department violating the Public Records Law and initially claiming that the files still existed but were exempt from public review.

“All Occupy Boston-related bulletins were purged a while back, and we do not have any intelligence reports in our Intel database for Occupy Boston-related activity,” said a BRIC statement provided to the Gazette by Lt. Michael McCarthy, the Boston Police Department’s director of media relations. McCarthy clarified that the files were purged in the winter of 2012-13 and said it was done in accordance with BRIC’s privacy policy of destroying ultimately irrelevant files. BRIC is housed within BPD headquarters at Ruggles and Tremont streets, which serves as its official “custodian of records” for public-records request purposes.

Robin Jacks, a co-founder of the 2011 Occupy Boston movement, appeared in some of the previously known BRIC files. She told the Gazette she does not believe BRIC, and does not feel better even if the files are gone.

“I’m not convinced that the files were purged,” Jacks said. “Prove to me the files were purged.”

“I still think it’s very creepy and weird. What was the point of that?” Jacks said of BRIC’s spying, noting that if BRIC did delete the files, it just proves how irrelevant the spying was in the first place.

BRIC is one of many state and federally funded “fusion centers” around the country widely derided—including by a bipartisan U.S. Senate committee—as incompetent, wasteful threats to civil liberties. BRIC has been especially controversial for its detailed spying on Occupy Boston while failing to know anything at all about the accused Boston Marathon bombers.

Two previous efforts by civil liberties organizations resulted in some BRIC spy files being released and eventually published. But it appears that none of those groups knew that BRIC purged the files a few months after the first such publication.

A Massachusetts ACLU/National Lawyers Guild lawsuit for BRIC files in 2012 revealed that BRIC spies branded a 2007 anti-war event at a Jamaica Plain church as a “criminal act” by “extremists.” Among the attendees were Mélida Arredondo, the wife of future Boston Marathon bombing rescue hero Carlos Arredondo; and Felix D. Arroyo, then a Boston city councilor and now the Suffolk County Probate Court clerk.

Last year, a more comprehensive report on fusion-center spying on the 2011 Occupy movement around the country, including in Boston, was released by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. Hundreds of BRIC spy files were released and showed obsessive surveillance and documentation of many legal, non-violent activities at Northeastern, including that year’s “Occupy Northeastern” event and other student protests, but also public lectures and workshops.

The documents also showed continued surveillance of the Arredondos and put a new context on Carlos’s 2009 arrest outside Boston Police headquarters—the home of BRIC—while displaying an American flag during the funeral of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, which was held at Mission Church. The City of Boston settled a lawsuit over that arrest, which the Arredondos claimed was groundless.

Following the ACLU/NLG report, BPD refused to explain why it classified the JP anti-war protest as “criminal.” It also claimed that it never spies on lawful activities and that its retaining of such records more than 90 days, in violation of its own policies, was simply an error.

However, the Occupy-related BRIC files showed it continuing to spy on thousands of legal activities and retaining many such files for long periods. BRIC and BPD claimed the intent of the spying was to plan for protests and thus protect protesters and their rights. Few, if any, targeted activists or organizations appear to believe that is true, and the files contained many non-protest events.

The previously released BRIC files cover relatively narrow periods of time or relate to a particular lawsuit. To determine the full extent of BRIC’s spying in Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain, the Gazette last August filed a public records request for any files including the neighborhoods’ names and dating from BRIC’s founding in 2005 to the present.

State law requires a response within 10 days, but BPD violated that law by taking more than 100 days. Its response was to claim that all such records are exempt from disclosure as “investigative materials.”

The Gazette re-filed the request in December, noting that BPD already had released hundreds of such documents that plainly were not exempt. BPD again violated state law by not responding. The Gazette then appealed to the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s Office to demand that BPD produce the documents.

After hearing from the Secretary of State’s Office, McCarthy at BPD contacted the Gazette and said the request was “overbroad.” The Gazette noted that the request was broad because the BRIC spying was broad, and the point was to determine its extent. However, state law allows agencies to reject records requests that are too general. In addition, McCarthy noted that the Gazette’s request could cover files relating to criminal investigations of drug gangs and similar groups that would be exempt and complicate the response.

The Gazette agreed to negotiate a more tailored request, including omitting any purely criminal investigations. However, narrowing the request further was challenging because McCarthy said he was unaware of the previous document releases, despite their extensive coverage in such media as the Boston Globe and the New York Times. The Gazette provided BPD with links to those prior reports and said the request was essentially for any other BRIC files of that type relating to Mission Hill or JP.

It appears that BRIC and BPD interpreted that as meaning only Occupy-related files. That resulted in BPD this month revealing the Occupy Boston file purge.

The Gazette has chosen to abandon further attempts with this particular record request, but will consider strategies for seeking further, non-Occupy-related BRIC spy files.

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