U.S. government may have spied on ‘Occupy Philadelphia’ gatherings

Protesters march on City Hall during the Occupy Protests (NewsWorks file photo)

Protesters march on City Hall during the Occupy Protests (NewsWorks file photo)

Under the banner of “We are the 99 percent,” hundreds of Occupy Philadelphia protesters, and counterparts around the country, rallied around the issue of economic inequality for weeks.

Civil rights attorney Paul Hetznecker said there’s evidence the U.S. government spied on those gatherings, and he sued to find out.

“To essentially create transparency in government, to inform the public about how the intelligence community is operating and if they have violated guidelines or the law with respect to domestic surveillance,” Hetznecker said.

He said the exposure of a widespread secret surveillance program from NSA contractor Edward Snowden gives him reason to believe spying occurred.

Now, a federal judge is ordering the CIA, National Security Agency and the FBI to reveal whether the agencies spied on Occupy Philadelphia protesters five years ago.

“Any time the government seeks to know more about its citizens and its residents, than we know about their surveillance operation, that’s an unfortunate and dangerous balance that threatens our democracy,” said Hetznecke.

He originally requested the information by a Freedom of Information Act two years ago. In February, he sued in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District for the information.

The NSA has told Hetznecker that “fact of the existence or non-existence of the materials you requested is currently a properly classified matter.”

The CIA has declined to process his request, saying the FBI, not the CIA, conducts surveillance on its citizens when it doesn’t involve a foreign intelligence.

The FBI did respond with a seven-page document, but it was heavily redacted, since, the agency said, disclosing what was sought would be an invasion of personal privacy

The CIA, National Security Agency have 60 days to respond, according to the judge’s order. And  the FBI must provide a non-redacted version of the seven pages, which will be reviewed privately in judge’s chambers.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.