Protesters spied on

Information released under freedom of information (FOI) laws shows that NSW Police is keeping detailed documentation about numerous groups and individuals on the political left. Police intelligence assessments have targeted a variety groups, including Mutiny and Greenpeace.

The documents were released in response to a FOI request by the Sydney Morning Herald for a list of the reasons why 61 people were excluded from much of Sydney's central business district during the protests against APEC in 2007.

The APEC Meeting (Police Powers Act) created special security areas. Section 26 of the act allowed named activists to be excluded from various locations, including the northern end of the CBD, if they posed "serious threats to the safety of persons or property".

The intelligence assessments that were released under FOI showed the information that was relied on for the exclusion. The people excluded include individuals with no affiliation and some who are associated with Mutiny and Greenpeace.

Mutiny is a small group of anarchists who have legendary status as "trouble-makers" in the eyes of the police and the media. Greenpeace is not known for violent protest actions, and its website declares: "We follow the Quaker tradition of bearing witness … We strongly believe that violence in any form is morally wrong and accomplishes nothing."

Groups and events referred to in the released documents include the G20 finance meeting in Melbourne in 2006, a protest against the 2005 Forbes Global CEO Conference in Sydney, the Melbourne group ACDC, Flare in the Void, last year's student walkout against George Bush's visit, and the University of Sydney environmental collective and anarchists. There are references to groups described as "anti-war", "socialist" and "environmental".

One person was predicted to engage in "further protest activity during APEC Leaders Week organised by ASEN [Australian Student Environmental Network], Rising Tide, Resistance, Stop Bush Coalition or [sic] Mutiny". Even the Sydney University STUCCO Housing Cooperative gets a mention.

There is a reference to a person who "has previously come to NSW Police attention as an anti-war protestor", as if that were an offence in itself. Other information shows that police have noted personal relationships and who has set up post office boxes.

Perhaps in an attempt by police analysts to keep themselves in a job, some of the reports use intelligence jargon and cloak-and-dagger melodrama. For example, Mutiny meetings are said to be held at a "covert location", when most of the left and presumably the police know that these meetings are held at the Black Rose Bookshop in Newtown (the meetings are advertised on posters and public leaflets).

In deciding whether to put people on the excluded person's list, membership of Mutiny was all that was considered necessary. The same words are copied and printed from one intelligence assessment to another, with no additional information to justify why a listed person was a "serious threat".

Individuals are described as "militant" or "very militant" — a conceptual sloppiness even by conventional intelligence analysis standards. Other content includes references to individuals who are "moving to
Sydney" and details of a person's credit card that was used to hire a van to transport people to a protest.

The description of one activist includes the fact that he has been active for at least four years, and that "initially his activities were mainly focused on refugee rights and local issues such as Aboriginal, youth and student rights. Over the past eighteen months however, his focus appears to have shifted towards anti-globalisation activity as demonstrated by his participation in the protests against the Forbes Conference and G20."

The range of information shows that it was not collected for APEC "security" purposes only, but was part of routine police operations before APEC — which are presumably still occurring.

References to email messages confirm some activist groups' suspicion that their e-groups are intercepted.

There are references to individuals being "not known on COPS for protest activity" or "known on COPS for protest activity with Greenpeace". This suggests that the Computer Operational Policing System is being used for the collection of information about individuals' political ideas and activities.

COPS information is available to every police officer in NSW and many thousands of civilian support staff in the police force. Such surveillance of activists was thought to have stopped when the NSW Police Special Branch was closed following widespread abuse and such surveillance tasks were confined to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

Further information is available in a September 6 article in the Sydney Morning Herald (visit lists/2008/09/05/1220121526743.html. For a copy of the intelligence assessments, visit http://www.smh.com.au/pdf/excludedlist.pdf.

[Dale Mills is a volunteer with Human Rights Monitors, which collects evidence of police misbehaviour at political protests. Visit http://www.humanrightsmonitors.org for more information.]

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