A new investigation reveals that federal and local law enforcement agencies have been surveilling journalists and activists involved in the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd for over a year under a secretive program known as Operation Safety Net (OSN), despite claiming to have shut the operation down last April.
Officials announced OSN in February 2021, a month before the trial for former Minneapolis police officer and murderer Derek Chauvin began. Law enforcement officials claimed that the goal of the program was to ensure that the public was able to exercise its right to free speech while making sure that things like business buildings weren’t harmed in the process.
The program has gathered a vast amount of information on activists and journalists, including pictures and documentation of their locations during the protests — moves that are antithetical to the program’s supposed goal of protecting free speech. In April 2021, when Chauvin’s verdict was handed down, OSN stopped posting on social media and officials told the public that the program was stopping after it had received criticism from civil rights advocacy groups and lawmakers like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota).
But reporters have found that, at least as of February, officials were still surveilling and gathering data on activists and journalists — including people who are not suspected of committing a crime — under an operation deemed OSN 2.0.
The program involved nine agencies in Minnesota, 120 officers from out of state and at least 3,000 National Guard soldiers, Tate Ryan-Mosley and Sam Richards detailed in the MIT Technology Review. Federal agencies took part, with at least six FBI agents having aided with the program and the Department of Homeland Security offering its support.
Customs and Border Protection also helped surveil protesters and the media, lending helicopters to Minneapolis police to monitor the protests at their peak, flying high to avoid detection.
At the time, police were detaining journalists and uploading information about their location, photographs of their bodies and faces, and press passes into a surveillance tool called Intrepid Reponse. The program provides law enforcement with the geolocations of targets and colleagues, and can act as a sort of database for officials looking to control protesters.
That information was presumably entered into a watch list of protesters and journalists, which MIT Technology Review obtained. The list, compiled by the Criminal Intelligence Division of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, included photos and identifying information of people arrested by the Minnesota State Patrol.
Ryan-Mosley and Richards reviewed thousands of documents and conducted dozens of interviews. “Taken together, they reveal how advanced surveillance techniques and technologies employed by the state, sometimes in an extra-legal fashion, have changed the nature of protest in the United States, effectively bringing an end to Americans’ ability to exercise their First Amendment rights anonymously in public spaces,” they wrote.
Officials claim that the operation isn’t ongoing and that OSN 2.0 doesn’t exist. But the reporters found presentations, emails and intelligence that clearly referred to the operation as OSN 2.0.
OSN was originally meant to have four phases. The first phase was for planning, the second for protests during jury selection for Chauvin’s trial, and the third for during the closing arguments and verdict. But law enforcement ended up starting phase three a week before closing arguments, and began using the planned “full deployment of law enforcement and the national guard” during this time. Officers used tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and more.
Further, when officials announced that OSN was in phase four in April 2021, which was meant to wind the program down, the program seemed to be still ongoing. The investigation found that the program still appears to be surveilling protests in reaction to police killing 22-year-old Amir Locke after executing a no-knock warrant last month.
“The events in Minnesota have ushered in a new era of protest policing,” Ryan-Mosley and Richards wrote. “Protests that were intended to call attention to the injustices committed by police effectively served as an opportunity for those police forces to consolidate power, bolster their inventories, solidify relationships with federal forces, and update their technology and training to achieve a far more powerful, interconnected surveillance apparatus.”
While the findings of this investigation are chilling, it lines up with anecdotal and data-driven evidence that police and the government are averse to allowing left-wing protesters to demonstrate and exercise their First Amendment rights. For instance, research has shown that police are 3.5 times more likely to use force against left-wing protesters than against right-wing protesters. Meanwhile, lawmakers across the country have introduced and passed bills limiting protesters’ rights in reaction to 2020’s uprisings.
In response to the investigation, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) criticized lawmakers who have been calling for increased funding for law enforcement. “Shout out to everyone working to explode funding for surveillance programs like these across the country under the guise of ‘fund the police’ when in fact police budgets are already at some of their highest levels in US history across the country,” she said on Thursday. “No facts, just vibes.”
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