In the wake of revelations that a Boston Police spy agency tracked legal protest events in Jamaica Plain for years, the police department last week refused a Gazette request to release any further documents on local spying.
Earlier this year, the Washington, D.C.-based Partnership for Civil Justice Fund released hundreds of documents from the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, a controversial police anti-terrorism spy agency based at BPD headquarters, that it obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Some of those documents, dating to 2011, revealed that BRIC monitored that year’s Occupy JP events, Whole Foods Market protests, and a vigil for the suicidal son of acclaimed marathon bombing hero Carlos Arredondo.
An ACLU/National Lawyers Guild lawsuit in 2012 revealed that BRIC spies were tracking other perfectly legal Boston events as early as 2007. That included branding a 2007 anti-war event at a JP church as a “criminal act” by “extremists,” as the Gazette previously reported.
Various Occupy protests and regular academic events at Northeastern University were spy targets as well, as reported by the Jamaica Plain Gazette’s sister paper, the Mission Hill Gazette.
The Partnership and ACLU/NLG reports came out of concerns that BRIC may be violating the First Amendment by monitoring and keeping records on legitimate political, academic and entertainment activity. BRIC has claimed it “safeguards” those rights and compiled its files only for “operational planning in the interest of assuring the safety and security of the demonstrators and the public.”
BRIC attracted controversy for spying on such legal, non-terroristic public events while failing to know anything at all about the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. It 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.
The BRIC documents that were made public indicated that among its information sources were Twitter, websites and material published in the Gazette.
In August, the Gazette filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking any BRIC intelligence analysis reports, dating from 2005 to the present, containing the terms “Jamaica Plain” or “Mission Hill.”
Under state public records laws, BPD was required to respond within 10 days. However, it took 109 days to respond with a blanket refusal to release any such documents.
BPD claims that any such documents are exempt from public disclosure because they are “investigative materials.” The public records laws include an exemption for such materials, defined as “materials necessarily compiled out of the public view by law enforcement…the disclosure of which materials would probably so prejudice the possibility of effective law enforcement that such disclosure would not be in the public interest.”
That claim of exemption comes despite that fact that hundreds of such documents already have been released; that many of them involved legal activities that involved no law enforcement of any kind; and that among the known BRIC documents are information taken from public websites and from the pages of the Gazette itself.
The Gazette is appealing BPD’s refusal to release the documents with the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees the enforcement of public records laws.