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Federal court may broaden NYPD's spying powers

By The Associated Press

02.14.03

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NEW YORK — A federal judge said he may grant New York City police broadened powers to investigate political or religious groups, saying the “nature of public peril” is ever-changing in a time of terrorism.

U.S. District Judge Charles S. Haight said he might expand police powers in March by permitting a rewriting of a 1985 consent decree that established the Handschu Guidelines governing what New York City police are allowed to do to investigate political activity.

“The Constitution’s protections are unchanging, but the nature of public peril can change with dramatic speed, as recent events show,” Haight wrote Tuesday.

The consent decree settled a 1971 lawsuit brought by the Black Panther Party alleging police engaged in widespread surveillance of legitimate political activity and distributed the information elsewhere, including to state, federal and other local law enforcement groups.

Handschu was a reference to lead plaintiff Barbara Handschu in a case that included 1960s radical activist Abbie Hoffman among its plaintiffs.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the city asked Haight to let it modify the Handschu Guidelines so that it no longer must seek permission from a three-person panel to investigate political groups. It also asked that it be allowed to share its information with other law enforcement agencies.

To assure it follows the Constitution in protecting individual rights, the city offered to follow a 22-page set of FBI guidelines issued last year on crime, racketeering and terrorism investigations.

Haight said he will not formally approve the changes until the department shows him a text of the federal guidelines.

David Cohen, the police department’s deputy commissioner for intelligence, had argued that the panel hinders the hunt for terrorists who use mosques and Islamic institutions to shield their activities.

“Fundamental changes in the threats to public security are perfectly apparent to every individual with any awareness of what is happening in the world,” Haight said.

He noted that terrorists convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing followed the same spiritual leader, an Egyptian cleric who was later convicted in a 1993 plot to blow up five landmarks in New York City, including the United Nations.

In a footnote, he added, “The significant fact is that, as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and its surrounding circumstances demonstrate, terrorists can and do use political, religious and social organizations to plan and promote acts of terror.”

Jethro Eistenstein, a lawyer for Handschu plaintiffs, said he was disappointed that police will no longer have to file investigation statements with the Handschu Authority, saying the rules never significantly inhibited officers’ ability to fight terrorism.

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NYPD seeks more leeway to monitor political groups
Citing a climate altered by terrorist threats, department asks federal court to sharply curtail powers of three-member panel that oversees its surveillance of domestic activists.  09.26.02

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