Inside the Phoenix PD's Use of Federal Anti-Terrorism Resources to Track Valley Protesters

It's mid-October 2011, and Occupy Phoenix protesters sit in a city park, some with their arms locked, most chanting: "We are the 99 percent!"

They are part of a movement gaining momentum across the United States whose mission is to denounce corporate greed. Their civil disobedience also is intended to deride a government influenced by the same wealthy corporations it bails out of financial crises.

About 1,000 people from across the Valley gather on October 15 at Cesar Chavez Plaza in downtown Phoenix. The throng stays in the civic space until it closes early in the evening and cops usher people out. Several hundred protesters aren't ready to call it a night, though, and move to Margaret T. Hance Park.

Night falls, and this park closes, too.

A smaller number of protesters remain sitting on the lawn into early morning, October 16, even as police warn them to leave or face arrest for violating a city loitering ordinance. Several in the crowd shout that they are peacefully protesting as uniformed officers arrive en masse.

The confrontation with police is unnecessary.

Protest organizers had sought a permit to remain in the park through the night. Former state Senator Alfredo Gutierrez had put his political weight behind negotiating a deal between city officials and organizers.

There were reports that Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon would show up to support the rally, but neither he nor the permit materialize.

Instead, a menacing wall of officers wearing dark uniforms and gas masks and carrying protective shields close in on protesters. They grab those who refuse to stand up by their wrists, necks, and arms and drag them away.

City cops arrest 45 people, including Gutierrez, who served in the Arizona Senate for 12 years.

Phoenix Police Department officials who ordered officers to don riot gear and haul off those loitering in the park after hours claim they simply were maintaining law and order.

But their officers did more than make sporadic arrests to control various Occupy-related protests across the Valley, according to a report recently co-published by DBA Press and the Center for Media and Democracy.

DBA Press describes itself as an online publication reporting on private- and public-sector corruption, while the CMD states that it's an investigative-reporting group that "exposes corporate spin and government propaganda."

Freelance reporter and DBA Press publisher Beau Hodai's in-depth report "Dissent or Terror" details how law enforcement officials used the resources of the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center, its Terrorism Liaison officers, and an intelligence analyst to track and report on the movements of individuals affiliated, or believed to be affiliated, with the Occupy Phoenix movement.

And, the author reports, this information — obtained using these taxpayer-funded resources — promptly was shared with those whom Occupy organized to protest. Police officials passed along details to downtown Phoenix bank executives and the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that joins corporate executives and lobbyists with lawmakers to produce conservative "model" laws. For instance, ALEC created the framework for Arizona Senate Bill 1070, the state's draconian anti-immigrant law.

The PPD devoted significant time and resources to the probe, despite its officials noting that there was paltry participation in the local Occupy movement compared to movements in other U.S. cities.

"It's part of a surveillance state that's crept up on us, but is larger than people realize," Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, tells New Times. "We've seen this kind of monitoring . . . of political-protest activity . . . for decades."

Boghosian says the difference is that the Internet and social media have made it easier for local and federal law enforcement "to gather information on, and track with more sophistication, the activities of politically active individuals in the United States."

A behind-the-scenes look at the government's probing of Valley Occupy activists and protesters was a prelude to what has been referred to in recent weeks as "Orwellian" government tactics on several fronts.

Most recently, national outrage was sparked by revelations in the Washington Post and in London's Guardian newspaper that the National Security Agency and the FBI have collected personal data from nine major U.S. Internet firms — including Facebook, Google, and Apple — and from millions of records from major U.S. cell phone carriers.

The NSA debacle follows others, including the IRS' treatment of conservative Tea Party groups during the 2012 election. The Associated Press reported that about 75 groups were targeted inappropriately for additional reviews to ensure they weren't violating their tax-exempt statuses.

Another instance of government intrusion came on May 13, when the AP reported that the Department of Justice secretly obtained two months' worth of "telephone records of reporters and editors" that listed "outgoing calls for work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington, and Hartford [Connecticut], and for the main number of the AP in the U.S. House of Representatives press gallery."

The feds also gathered the phone records and tracked the movements of a Fox News reporter while he was developing leads on stories.

In Phoenix, Occupy organizers say they, too, were targets of undue government scrutiny doled out strategically and intentionally by police to hamper their ability to protest.

Cops call it intelligence gathering. Organizers call it spying and infiltration.

"It's like killing an ant with a shotgun," says Diane D'Angelo, an Occupy Phoenix member and spokeswoman. "It's absurd . . . to investigate protesters [who] care about people getting their homes foreclosed on. When you're treating people occupying Cesar Chavez Plaza with the same kind of rigorous attention as someone who's a member of al-Qaeda, that's pretty scary!"

To be sure, some Occupy-related events across the country, including in Oakland and in New York, saw episodes of violent clashes between cops and protesters. Most arrests, however, resulted in loitering or urban-camping charges.

Like police agencies across the country, the PPD devoted the resources of the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center to track members of the Occupy movement. Such information centers also are known as "fusion centers" because they pull together various law enforcement agencies.

In Arizona, the center touts itself as monitoring "all hazards" and potential terror threats. It's comprised of 25 law enforcement agencies, also including the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Tempe and Mesa police departments, and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

The details of journalist Hodai's report were gleaned from thousands of pages of public records he obtained from local, state, and federal agencies. They reveal that as organizers met to plan protests and advance the Occupy movement in metro Phoenix, city police officials sent an undercover officer to pose as a Mexican eager to support the cause.

The Phoenix cop attended public group meetings but also spent time with organizers in the park and on other occasions to gather details about protests and report them to superiors.

At the same time, an analyst with the PPD's Homeland Defense Bureau, part of the fusion center, monitored Occupy protesters' Facebook and Twitter accounts or used advanced technologies, such as facial recognition, to identify members of the movement.

The Occupy movement in Phoenix never burgeoned as it did in other American cities, but the PPD cautiously and vigorously tracked it as though it were a huge threat.

Although initial demonstrations attracted sizable crowds, subsequent rallies drew 50 or fewer protesters. On some days, attendance was so low that it prompted "mockery within the ranks" of the police department, Hodai reports.A Phoenix police detective working as a terrorism liaison officer for the Arizona Counter Terrorism Intelligence Center sent a law enforcement brief on trends his colleagues in other states had observed at Occupy events.

The police sergeant who received the detective's brief on December 28, 2011, commented sarcastically that the national report failed to "mention the four people we have demonstrating at Chavez Plaza."

Other police records show that daily monitoring of social-media accounts linked to members or sympathizers of the Occupy cause revealed "concern and frustration [among organizers] over the consistently low level of community involvement in the movement," according to city records obtained by Hodai.

Even so, his report notes, the PPD spent $245,200 "directly related to the policing of Occupy Phoenix during the first three days of the movement's existence."

The resources of the counter-terrorism center, well-funded by federal dollars, were spent to keep track of various Occupiers. Hodai noted that Phoenix received more than $1 million in grant money from the Department of Homeland Security in September 2010 to fund, in part, an intelligence analyst.

Brenda Dowhan, the civilian analyst hired by the PPD, and her counterpart in the Tempe Police Department commented in one e-mail exchange about how pleased they were that their "interference" helped foil a plot by activists to use a piece of vacant land in Tempe for urban gardening.

Dowhan wrote: "Every site I've been on, they know we're watching them."

But cops were doing more than "watching" — they were tracking.

Monitoring protesters isn't exactly what the feds had in mind as they poured as much as $1.4 billion since 2003 into creating and expanding 70 fusion centers across the United States.

In fact, a bipartisan probe in 2012 by a U.S. Senate subcommittee was critical of fusion centers for wasting money, getting used in ways that weren't strengthening counter-terrorism efforts, and stepping on Americans' freedoms.

The subcommittee investigation found the intelligence coming from the centers was "oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens' civil liberties and . . . occasionally taken from already-published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism."

The bottom line is that the October 2012 subcommittee findings severely question the value of the feds' investment in the fusion centers.

Democratic U.S. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of that Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which analyzes waste in government, said in the 2012 document that "fusion centers may provide valuable services in fields other than terrorism, such as contributions to traditional criminal investigations, public safety, or disaster response and recovery efforts." Nevertheless, he recommended that Congress "clarify the purpose of fusion centers and link their funding to their performance."

Republican U.S. Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a ranking member of the subcommittee who initiated the investigation of fusion centers, said: "Congress has a duty to the American people to ensure . . . it is getting value for the millions of taxpayer dollars invested in fusion centers."

Perhaps Phoenix terrorism liaison officers and analysts also were keeping tabs on actual terrorism threats, but they certainly were absorbed by Occupy Phoenix.

Silent Witness, a nonprofit organization that solicits crime tips, passed along to the PPD an anonymous online tip it received on November 18 about an "Occupy nut" from the Phoenix area.

The unnamed tipster wrote that the woman appeared to be involved with a violent organization.

"I'm aware no crime has technically been committed," the tipster continued, claiming the young woman had outstanding arrest warrants, was paranoid, and knew of specific plans for a violent revolt involving bombs. "[But] I've got an actual crime for you . . . illegal possession/use of marijuana. I've seen her smoking it on camera."

The individual, who had encountered the woman he called Amber only online, pledged to get police a photo of her smoking pot.

Police didn't wait for the photo of her smoking pot. They set out to identify the woman from an earlier photo provided by the tipster of her sitting in front of a computer.

"We have a Facebook photo and tried to do facial recognition, but she was wearing glasses," Dowhan wrote to police officials after sending the photo for analysis to another police agency within the counter-terrorism center.

It appears the photo was sent to a Facial Recognition Unit operated by the county Sheriff's Office, which can compare biometric data from photographs, such as those found on Facebook, to photos in a huge database — and not just pictures of people who have had brushes with the law.

Aside from 4.7 million mug shots from Arizona jails, 12,000 photos in the state's sex-offender database, and 2 million others listed in federal jails, the database includes about 18 million Arizona driver's license photos.

Hodai reports that there were "multiple instances" of police taking photos from Facebook and then using facial-recognition software to attempt to identify people believed to be Occupy members. He says it's important to note that the invasive technology was employed to investigate protesters as though police had probable cause to believe they had committed crimes.

Going to such extremes seems unwarranted. But Phoenix police spokesman Trent Crump tells New Times that the department would have been criticized as "negligent" had it not checked out a such alleged threats and somebody "actually carried out some kind of violent behavior."

When the PPD encounters "any behavior or statements" that allude to a possible threat, Crump says, it must follow up.

Documents show, however, that police tracked and dug into the backgrounds of individuals previously identified as members of Occupy Phoenix, even in the absence of any threat.

On December 14, 2011, at least five members of the PPD's executive staff, including Central City Precinct Commander Louis Tovar, received an e-mail regarding "Phoenix Occupiers" from a man identifying himself as David Mullin.

Mullin wrote: "Dear Sir or Madam, Please consider leaving the Occupy movement alone. They speak for me, and I suspect a large portion of American[s] who are upset with corporate greed and the ability to purchase politicians and their votes. We are going to take back America for its citizens, and it would probably be better for your careers not to get in the way."

He signed off with a simple "thanks."

Tovar noted to his colleagues that he had received similar e-mails from others and that he was merely giving investigators a heads-up.

It was enough for Assistant Phoenix Police Chief Tracy Montgomery to take Mullin's note as a possible threat, if only to her job security. Responding to members of the department's executive staff, Montgomery wrote: "Interesting e-mail threatening our careers. Anyone know the name?"

Montgomery's question prompted a subordinate commander to order that a lieutenant "check it out," and the e-mail ended up with Detective C.J. Wren of the city's Homeland Defense Bureau (part of the state counter-terrorism unit) and with analyst Brenda Dowhan.

The following day, Wren sent an e-mail to his lieutenant letting him know that "we figured out exactly where this guy got the names and e-mails to send that message." He identified the e-mailer as a former Glendale resident who lived in Las Vegas.

The e-mail addresses of the PPD commanders Mullin had messaged were posted on a website called Occupy the Signal, and viewers were asked to write to the city's top cops.

"Will work on it some more when I get back," wrote Wren, who had to head out for another assignment.

Hodai notes in his report that it's not a "violation of Arizona law for constituents to write their public servants with their concerns" and that "encouraging open communication is not an act of terrorism."

Records show that Dowhan and Wren "devoted the better part of two days [to] discovering the identity and whereabouts of the e-mail author," according to Hodai's report, which said: "The purpose or conclusion of this investigation into . . . Mullin . . . is not clear."

On another occasion, two Occupy members posted plans on Facebook to travel to Flagstaff for Christmas 2011, and terrorism analyst Dowhan dutifully reported it to a Flagstaff terrorism official.

"I have notified the [official] there that they are coming and that we have no reason to believe that their visit is anything but peaceful," she wrote to her supervisors.

Her monitoring continued, and when the two individuals changed their travel dates, she again contacted Flagstaff law enforcement to report their updated plans.

Why would law enforcement here or in Flagstaff be so interested in the comings and goings of apparently "peaceful" citizens who only have exercised a constitutional right?

Because, Crump says, their past activities made Flagstaff authorities want to know about their presence in preparation for "any response deemed necessary."

But, Hodai tells New Times, "There is no predicate [for] criminal activity," continuing that police monitored not only people arrested or cited during Occupy protests but those who were just issued warnings.

"How much of a threat could these people possibly be that you need to give their information to a terrorism liaison [officer] or analyst, when [your] beat cop didn't even feel it was important enough to arrest them for whatever infraction?" he says.

Crump counters that there was no overreach, that "safeguards" exist in government to limit abuse of power.

He further justifies the official invasions of privacy by stating, "The public expects a great deal from us."

Government tracking of activists hardly was unique to Phoenix, as events nationally have trumpeted over the past couple of months. And groups targeted have not been limited to those on the political left.

Right-wing Tea Party organizations have sued the IRS after their tax-exempt statuses, or applications for them, were singled out because of key words in their names — "tea party" and "patriot."

Although IRS officials apologized in May, and none of the tax-exempt statuses was revoked, the controversy is ongoing. Conservative think tank American Center for Law and Justice filed a federal lawsuit on May 29 against the IRS on behalf of several Tea Party organizations, including the Greater Phoenix Tea Party.

The complaint states that the agency violated groups' constitutional rights by subjecting them to "burdensome inquiries and scrutiny . . . based solely upon Plaintiffs' political viewpoints, or Defendants' assumption of Plaintiffs' viewpoints, based on their organizational names."

But anyone with a cell phone or Internet access could have been caught up in PRISM, a U.S. government intelligence program launched in 2008. The program was exposed after the Guardian published leaked information about the NSA's intel program, including a top-secret court order demanding that Verizon Business Network Services turn over details of phone calls made between April 25 and July 19, 2013.

Intelligence officials later confirmed that the program probably included all U.S. cell phone carriers.

Details are still emerging, with CNN reporting that government officials now insist that the program is directed at "foreign targets located outside the United States" and that data mined as part of the program gets reviewed by the Obama administration, Congress, and judges.

Other acts of government intrusion include the feds' collection of phone records from the AP as part of a probe into who leaked details of a CIA operation in Yemen that thwarted a plot to blow up a U.S.-bound airplane on the anniversary of the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Open Channel, an investigative NBC news blog, reported on May 20 that the Justice Department's secret subpoena for AP phone records included the seizure of logs for five reporters' cell phones and three reporters' home phones, as well as for two fax lines.

David Schulz, chief lawyer for the AP, said the subpoenas also covered the records for 21 phone lines in five AP offices — including one for a dead phone line at an office in Washington shut down six years ago. The phone lines at four other offices — where 100 reporters worked — also were covered by the subpoenas, the blog reported.

The AP also is considering legal action against the Justice Department.

A Fox News reporter came under scrutiny by the Justice Department in 2011 as it investigated an unrelated 2009 leak of classified and sensitive information related to North Korea.

The details of federal agents' snooping into the activities of reporter James Rosen first were reported on May 19 by the Washington Post, exposing the depth of government surveillance.

Rosen had written in June 2009, two years before the investigation, about "U.S. intelligence officials [warning] President Barack Obama and other senior American officials that North Korea intends to respond to the looming passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution — condemning the communist country for its recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests — with another nuclear test."

The Post reported that federal agents used security-badge-access records to track the reporter's State Department visits, traced the timing of his calls with a State Department security adviser suspected of sharing the classified report, and obtained a search warrant for his personal e-mails.

Congressman Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who chairs the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, criticized the Justice Department's tendency to zealously investigate leaks to the media.

During a June 2 appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, Rogers said the Justice Department went too far when it cast such a wide net for AP reporters' phone records.

He said he knows, as a former FBI agent, how "incredibly important" keeping classified information secret is to national security.

"However, I think that dragnet that they threw out over those AP reporters was more than an overreach [and] a little bit dangerous when you talk about First Amendment protections for a free press."

Excessive scrutiny of average residents' exercising their constitutional rights to gather and protest also is dangerous, civil libertarians insist.

"We are very concerned . . . about this use of police resources against folks where there was no indication of any criminal activity, no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity," says Dan Pachoda, legal director of the Arizona office of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Clearly, it was a political decision . . . based on ideology that led [Phoenix police] to this increased focus on these groups. The police didn't like what they were saying."

Phoenix police and other law enforcement agencies shared details about pending protests with the very corporate entities that Occupy organizers planned to demonstrate against.

In his report, Beau Hodai documents how a Phoenix terrorism liaison officer, a police officer hired by the right-wing ALEC group, a terrorism analyst, an undercover police officer posing as an Occupy supporter, and others coordinated with ALEC officials before its convention in Scottsdale.

He notes that one meeting coincided with updating a "face sheet" with photos of 24 people. The sheet was titled "Persons of Interest to the ALEC Conference," and stated, beneath the title: "Committed Assault on Police Officers."

Attorney Heidi Boghosian, who wrote Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power and Public Resistance, says such cozy relationships and data monitoring "create a chilling effect on the exercise of free speech."

It amounts to the criminalizing of free speech, she says.

PPD spokesman Trent Crump says the department shares information with any group, regardless of ideology, expecting a large gathering. The goal, he insists, is to maintain public safety at the event.

Aside from analysts and terrorism liaison officers mining social-media networks, PPD leaders decided to embed undercover cops within the ranks of Occupy organizers.

A clean-cut man with slicked-back salt-and-pepper hair who appeared to be in his 50s introduced himself to activists in early 2011 while they were gathered at Conspire, a now-closed coffee shop and vegan cafe, Hodai's report states.

Although certain activists believed all along that he was a cop, the man claimed to be a homeless Mexican with ties to anarchists in that country. Public records show that after getting chummy with those attending Occupy gatherings, the man, who indeed turned out to be a cop, would report back any information about the group's future plans to his supervisors.

Hodai and Occupy activists question what suspicion of criminal activity existed to prompt Phoenix police to "infiltrate" meetings where protests and demonstrations were being planned.

Crump told Hodai that police don't have to even "anticipate that there's going to be criminal activity" to gather intelligence. It's a routine exercise, he contended.

Hodai highlights in his report that dispatching undercover cops and mining social-media accounts weren't the only ways PPD officials obtained information about the Occupy movement here. They also asked private citizens to help out.

Cindy Dach, owner of MADE Art Boutique on Roosevelt Row and co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, got caught up in the controversy over the department's activities when she sent an e-mail to cops in 2011 informing them about an upcoming Occupy meeting.

Dach tells New Times that she did not intend to share information with police to hamper protesters' efforts.

"There were huge safety concerns," she says. "People forget that, at the time, sidewalks were not yet expanded, and police were working with a lot of residents and business owners to keep [First Fridays] a safe event."

First Friday is a monthly art walk through downtown Phoenix's Roosevelt Row, a revitalized urban area with restaurants, galleries, and boutiques.

Dach's e-mail to police let them know that activists planned to meet later on October 7. It wasn't until Hodai requested thousands of documents and e-mails from the PPD that Dach's message to cops came to light.

It drew mixed reaction from Occupy members, some calling for a boycott of her businesses.

Her public apology was posted on Facebook and OccupyPhx.org:

"I am truly sorry. It was never my intention to provide an intelligence-gathering tip to local police or [to] attempt to disrupt free speech." She added that, after reading Hodai's report, she "realized how naive I was in this situation."

Calling what transpired a sobering lesson, she said she didn't know her information would be "used instead to gather information about an Occupy meeting."

For D'Angelo, the PPD's information-gathering campaign against Occupy members "reinforces the notion that they were being treated like terrorists or criminals."

Although she had served on the city's Human Rights Committee, had been a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Transportation, and knew members of the state fusion center, her Facebook page and social-media accounts were monitored by police.

Detective Wren, Phoenix's terror liaison officer, told a colleague in an e-mail that he was gathering information from D'Angelo's social-media accounts, but he asked the officer not to mention anything to her about him "trolling" her Facebook page because he and D'Angelo were longtime friends.

"What amazes me is the tone-deafness of the Phoenix Police Department and city officials about why we were protesting," D'Angelo says. "They were assuming criminality and that Occupy was just a bunch of dirty hippies. That just wasn't the case."

One of the "dirty hippies," it turned out, was former Arizona Senator Gutierrez, also a past gubernatorial candidate, who was among those carried away by police in the early hours of October 16 for overstaying their welcome at a city park.

Boghosian says such action often "placates the public into thinking law enforcement is dealing with national-security threats." The reality, she says, is that the PPD was investigating "domestic activism" when it should have been "pursuing real criminal activity."

The local ACLU defended those arrested, and in nearly all cases, got the charges against them dismissed.

"At best, it's a bad use of police resources," ACLU lawyer Pachoda says, "because there was no indication that people were planning crimes, committing crimes, or meeting for any other purpose than [constitutionally protected] political protest."

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo