A federal judge has ordered the CIA and the National Security Agency to disclose to him whether they were involved in spying on Occupy Philadelphia protesters during their monthlong demonstration at what is now Dilworth Park five years ago.
Responding to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by a lawyer for the demonstrators, U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller gave the agencies until early next year to submit a list of any records detailing the agencies' potential surveillance activities, along with a justification of why those documents should be withheld from public disclosure.
Schiller said he would rely upon that list to determine whether to release such documents or whether he would need to examine such records in person before making his decision.
The Occupy protesters spent weeks camped outside City Hall, seeking to draw attention to income inequality, before police dispersed them in November 2011 to make way for a $50 million renovation of what was then Dilworth Plaza.
Civil rights lawyer Paul J. Hetznecker, who filed the lawsuit and the initial records request nearly two years ago, called even this early step a victory in an age when security agencies have been given wide latitude to withhold documents detailing their operations from public records requests.
"It is important that this tool of transparency sheds light on the secrets of government," he said. "In a democracy, we should know more about what the government is doing than they know about the privacy and secrets of our own personal and political lives."
And yet, Hetznecker can't say for sure whether the documents he seeks actually exist.
The intelligence agencies aren't saying whether they monitored Philadelphia's Occupy protests.
The CIA refused to process Hetznecker's request, saying the agency's remit focuses on foreign - not domestic - surveillance.
The National Security Agency would not confirm or deny that it had any records related to the demonstration, saying that if it did, those records would be classified.
But in court filings over the last year, Hetznecker has suggested that evidence exists to suggest a concerted push by federal agencies to spy on the protesters' activities.
He cites recent revelations from Edward Snowden on the NSA's mass surveillance programs, and news reports detailing CIA involvement in the New York Police Department's surveillance of Muslim religious groups between 2002 and 2011, to suggest both agencies have been involved in monitoring political and personal activities of U.S. citizens.
In response to a similar FOIA request to the FBI for Occupy Philadelphia-related materials, Hetznecker received a series of almost completely redacted reports. One appears to summarize an operation involving an undercover informant from Canton, Ohio, that started two days before the first general meeting of the Occupy Philadelphia demonstrators at the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City.
In his order late last week, Schiller also ordered the FBI to allow him to review an unredacted copy of that document and the others disclosed by the bureau to determine if further details should be released publicly.