MANHATTAN (CN) — Borrowing the language of a Cold War-era CIA mission, the New York City Police Department has spent at least half a decade refusing to confirm or deny the existence of public records.
Three organizers from Millions March NYC, an offshoot of the Black Lives Matter movement, challenged this practice on Tuesday, in a lawsuit accusing the NYPD of hiding information about how it monitors public protests behind national-security exemptions meant for federal agencies.
Studying reports that the NYPD had interfered with activists’ cellphones, organizers Vienna Rye, Arminta Jeffryes and Nabil Hassein say they filed records requests this past October under New York’s Freedom of Information Law.
Their requests sought information on the NYPD’s social-media tracking of protesters and its attempts to intercept their cellphone communications, even across encrypted chat programs like Signal.
In denying these requests, however, the NYPD issued a so-called “Glomar response,” named for the CIA salvage ship called the Hughes Glomar Explorer.
Immortalized in Tom Clancy’s spy novel “The Hunt for Red October,” the Glomar went on a classified mission to recover a sunken Soviet submarine from the Pacific Ocean. It also inspired a precedent allowing federal agencies to deny the existence of information in the name of national security.
Filing their complaint in Manhattan Supreme Court, attorneys for the Millions March activists say the tool is not one that belongs in the hands of the NYPD.
“If the NYPD’s Glomar invocation were accepted in this case, there would be no limit to the NYPD’s ability to cloak its conduct in secrecy, in contravention of FOIL’s promise of transparency and government accountability,” the 19-page complaint states, abbreviating the Freedom of Information Law.
While the public-records statutes governing the CIA are federal, the NYPD operates under state law.
The Manhattan Supreme Court’s Justice Alexander Hunter Jr. blurred the lines between the two in October 2014.
In a case that he said raised “an important issue of apparent first impression,” Hunter supported the NYPD’s withholding of files about its investigation of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood.
With this decision under review now by the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s top appellate court, the New York Civil Liberties Union says that a ruling in the NYPD’s favor could “eviscerate” public accountability.
“This Glomar response is unwarranted and a troubling sign of how the NYPD will abuse the Glomar doctrine if the Court of Appeals imports the doctrine from the federal FOIA jurisprudence into FOIL,” the complaint states. “This court should reject the claim and ensure that Glomar does not eviscerate FOIL’s purpose to promote transparency and accountability.”
Rye, one of the activists leading the suit, details suspicious phone glitches she has experienced during marches.
In one instance, Rye said, she and another organizer lost cellphone reception while protesting Donald Trump at the New York State Republican Committee’s annual gala near Grand Central Station.
Rye said that she also received messages of possible interference with messages she sent through Signal, an encrypted texting program.
“The NYPD has a documented history of using surveillance as a tool of repression against political organizers, from the Young Lords to the Black Panthers,” Rye said in a statement. “State surveillance is a form of psychological warfare. We want to shed as much light on the NYPD’s behavior as possible.”
Rye and the other activists are represented by the NYCLU’s Robert Hodgson.
The NYPD declined to comment on pending litigation.