Wall Street’s Secret Spy Center, Run for the 1% by NYPD

On September 25, 2011, just eight days after the Occupy Wall Street protests began in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, the much acclaimed CBS News program, 60 Minutes, aired a fawning look at the thousands of surveillance cameras affixed to buildings and lampposts throughout New York City.  The cameras feed live images of people going about their everyday lives to a $150 million computer center equipped with artificial intelligence to integrate and analyze the daily habits of what are, for the most part, law-abiding Americans.

The thrust of the 60 Minutes  program was the fine job of counter terrorism being done by the NYPD and its Commissioner, Raymond Kelly. It was a triumph in public relations for a police department about to go on an assault spree —  pepper spraying and punching  peaceful protestors;  kicking, ramming and arresting journalists attempting to cover the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.

On air, the reporter, Scott Pelley, said the surveillance center was “housed in a secret location,”  as one would expect of a real counter terrorism program — as opposed to a program to simply quash dissent.  Mr. Pelley also said the program was run by the NYPD.  As it turns out, neither of those assertions were accurate.

The New York Times, the worldwide news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP), Wired Magazine, the New York City Council had all previously reported the location of the supposedly super secret counter terrorism  center on their public web sites: 55 Broadway in the bowels of the financial district.  What was a secret about the operation, and not reported by 60 Minutes to its viewers, despite being well aware of the facts, is that the center is jointly staffed and operated by the NYPD along with the largest Wall Street firms – the same firms under investigation in 50 states for mortgage and foreclosure fraud and widely credited with causing the Nation’s economic collapse.  The Wall Street firms that were involuntarily  bailed out by the 99% are now policing the 99%.

In a telephone conversation with the co-producer of the program, Robert Anderson, he conceded that he was aware of the presence of the Wall Street firms in the center.  It would have been hard to miss them.  The facility is designed with three long rows of computer workstations.  The outside of each cubicle bears a brass plaque with the names of the occupants: Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, JPMorganChase, etc.

You won’t find photographs showing these firms in the surveillance center in any U.S. corporate news outlet, but a foreign news service has them openly displayed – a news organization servicing countries of the former Soviet Union.  These photos were taken during a large gathering of reporters and photographers at the invitation of the NYPD.  As shown in the photos, the event was hosted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. Very secret counter terrorism operation, indeed, with global reporters and photographers coming and going in both 2010 and 2011.

As we reported in October, the surveillance plan became known as the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative and the facility was dubbed the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center. It operates round-the-clock with 2,000 private spy cameras owned by Wall Street firms and other corporations, together with approximately 1,000 more owned by the NYPD.  At least 700 additional cameras scour the midtown area and also relay their live feeds into the downtown center where all film is integrated for analysis.  The $150 million of taxpayer money that’s funding this corporate/police spying operation comes from both city and Federal sources, with the cost rising daily as more technology is added.

Not only is it unprecedented for corporations under serial and ongoing corruption probes to be allowed to spy on law abiding citizens under the imprimatur of the largest police force in the country, but the legality of the operation by the NYPD itself is highly questionable.

During the 60 Minutes program (at elapsed time 8:50), the following exchange takes place between the reporter Scott Pelley and Jessica Tisch, the NYPD Director of Counterterrorism Policy and Planning who played a significant role in developing the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center. (Tisch is in her early thirties and did not come up through the ranks of counter terrorism or law enforcement. She is the granddaughter and one of the heirs to the fortune of now-deceased billionaire Laurence Tisch, who built the Loews Corporation.  Her father, James Tisch, is the CEO of the Loews Corporation and was elected by Wall Street banks to sit on the Federal Reserve Bank of  New York until 2013,  representing the public’s interest.  Ms. Tisch is apparently standing in for the public’s interest in this surveillance operation:  rather than public hearings, Ms. Tisch drafted the guidelines for the program herself.)

Pelley: “Tisch showed us how the system can search for a suspicious person based on a description – a red shirt for example.”

Tisch: “And I can call up in real time all instances where a camera caught someone wearing a red shirt.”

Pelley: “So the computer looks essentially through all the video, finds all of the red shirts and puts it together for you.”

Tisch: “Video canvasses that used to take days and weeks to do, you’ll now be able to do with the snap of a finger.”

Tisch snaps her fingers for added emphasis.

Unfortunately, electronic surveillance of individuals at the snap of a finger is exactly what New York State law prohibits.  New York Code, Section 700.15,  requires a warrant for video surveillance and the warrant is only issuable “Upon probable cause to believe that a particularly  described  person  is committing, has committed, or is about to commit a particular designated offense.”  Blanket surveillance of hundreds of thousands of law-abiding citizens with cameras that pan, tilt and rotate to track individuals to the doorsteps of their psychiatrist, debt counselor, Alcoholics Anonymous, or prosecutor’s office – shared with corporations that employ hundreds of thousands of these same individuals, is breathtaking in its blatant disregard for privacy rights.

In a letter dated March 26, 2009 to Police Commissioner Kelly, following years of being stonewalled with its Freedom of Information Law requests for more details on the surveillance program, the New York Civil Liberties Union warned:  “…virtually all of the enormous information gathered and maintained by the system will be about people engaged in wholly lawful activity…we believe this entire enterprise is illegitimate and inappropriate…”

In a 2006 formal report on the camera surveillance network, the NYCLU noted that “Today’s surveillance camera is not merely the equivalent of a pair of eyes. It has super human vision.  It has the capability to zoom in and ‘read’ the pages of the book you have opened while waiting for a train in the subway.”  The report further explained that “New York City has a long and troubled history of police surveillance of individuals and groups engaged in lawful political protest and dissent.  Between 1904 and 1985 the NYPD compiled some one million intelligence files on more than 200,000 individuals and groups — suspected communists, Vietnam War protesters, health and housing advocates, education reform groups, and civil rights activists.”

An even bigger problem for New York City came on January 23 of this year when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a rare unanimous decision in United States v. Jones.  All nine justices agreed that the use of an electronic GPS tracking device placed on an automobile by law enforcement constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment and required a warrant.

Writing the decision for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia stated: “As Justice Brennan explained in his concurrence in Knotts, Katz did not erode the principle ‘that when the Government does engage in physical intrusion of a consti­tutionally protected area in order to obtain information, that intrusion may constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment.”

Writing a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor expanded on the potential for unconstitutional law enforcement actions using electronic surveillance devices: “GPS monitoring generates a precise, comprehensive record of a person’s public movements that reflects a wealth of detail about her familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations. See, e.g., People v. Weaver, 12 N. Y. 3d 433, 441–442, 909 N. E. 2d 1195, 1199 (2009) (‘Disclosed in [GPS] data . . . will be trips the indisputably private na­ture of which takes little imagination to conjure: trips to the psychiatrist, the plastic surgeon, the abortion clinic, the AIDS treatment center, the strip club, the criminal defense attorney, the by-the-hour motel, the union meet­ing, the mosque, synagogue or church, the gay bar and on and on.’) The Government can store such records and efficiently mine them for information years into the future.”

Electronic surveillance cameras deployed in New York City, however, do for more than GPS devices: they film the individual, their features, their companions, and show just what doorsteps they are entering in their comings and goings throughout the day; week after week; 24/7.

What zealous prosecutor or Wall Street whistleblower or investigative reporter is safe from being targeted by this surveillance juggernaut.

The electronic tracking capability described by Ms. Tisch on 60 Minutes, where an individual in the snap of a finger is tracked all over Manhattan, with no warrant and no more probable cause than wearing a red shirt, seems just what Justices Scalia and Sotomayor had in mind as illegal activities.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard and Carl Messineo are civil rights attorneys who co-founded the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund.  They have filed a class action lawsuit against Police Commissioner Kelly, Mayor Bloomberg and the City of New York over the arrest on October 1, 2011 of more than 700 peaceful protestors on the Brooklyn Bridge.  Ms. Verheyden-Hilliard had this to say about the sprawling surveillance program in New York City:

“The clearly stipulated and clearly defined requirement of probable cause, a central guarantee that protects individuals from over-reaching police authority, has been eviscerated in practice and in policy by the all-pervasive surveillance tools that make certain people and groups the ‘usual suspects’ in an environment that authorizes racial, religious and political profiling as the de facto law of the land. The NYPD is engaged in mass surveillance and mass aggregation of data on persons who not only have engaged in no criminal activity, but for whom there is no probable cause or individualized suspicion to believe they have engaged, or are engaged, in criminal activity. This is a perversion of civil rights and civil liberties by the government that is spreading across the country.”

Chris Dunn, Associate Legal Director of the NYCLU, said in response to my question concerning  the significance to New Yorkers of the Jones Supreme Court decision: “This decision opens the door to the argument that police camera systems that systematically track the movements and whereabouts of people in public places trigger constitutional scrutiny.  We have long believed that LMSI [Lower Manhattan Security Initiative]  violates the privacy rights of law-abiding New Yorkers, and this ruling from the Supreme Court supports that view.”  (Mr. Dunn is also an adjunct professor at the NYU School of Law where he teaches in the Civil Rights Clinic and he authors the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties column in the New York Law JournalHe has written a detailed analysis of the United States v. Jones decision in his current column.)

Mr. Dunn’s opinion is buttressed by a powerful corporate law firm, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale, which ironically lists among its clients the Wall Street firms Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and JPMorganChase.  The firm co-authored the 2007 report for the Constitution Project titled: “Public Video Surveillance: A Guide to Protecting Communities and Preserving Civil Liberties.”

The report singles out New York, interpreting its law as follows: “Several state statutes regulate aspects of public use of video surveillance.  In New York, for example, video surveillance can only be conducted as part of a police investigation into the allegedly criminal behavior of an individual pursuant to a warrant.  Because of what the statute terms ‘the reasonable expectation of privacy under the constitution of this state or of the United States,’ the bar for authorizing or approving such a warrant is set quite high, and the alleged crimes must be quite serious.  Arizona, in contrast, merely makes it a misdemeanor for a person to use video ‘surveillance’ in a public place without posting notice.”

This vast surveillance program in New York City has had no public hearings to develop proper guidelines, no public overseers, no legislative mandate and is operating with no checks and balances.

The City Council’s  Committee on Public Safety, chaired by Peter Vallone, did tour the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center on June 16, 2011.  The minutes of the meeting on the City Council’s  public web site list only the date, time and location.  A phone call and email request to Mr. Vallone’s office to make the full minutes available to the public was met with silence.

I asked Michael Cardozo’s office, Corporation Counsel for New York City, to give me a statement as to the legality of this NYPD-Wall Street surveillance program.  Mr. Cardozo declined to be quoted but his associate, Deputy Communications Director, Connie Pankratz, said: “It is perfectly legal to use security cameras in public spaces.  This is no different than having a police officer watch or follow someone on a public street.”

That analogy is like comparing a pea shooter to a heat-seeking missile.  These cameras can pan, tilt, rotate and zoom.  The live feeds are integrated with cameras from all over Manhattan which can simultaneously analyze the images using artificial intelligence to look for specific human features or clothing colors.  To quote Ms. Tisch on 60 Minutes: “Nobody has a system like this.”

I filed two Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests with the NYPD in the Fall of 2011.  New York State has an inspiring sunshine law, which acknowledges that “The people’s right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is basic to our society. Access to such information should not be thwarted by shrouding it with the cloak of secrecy or confidentiality. The legislature therefore declares that government is the public’s business and that the public, individually and collectively and represented by a free press, should have access to the records of government in accordance with the provisions of this article…”

Notwithstanding the noble intent of the law and notwithstanding the legislative mandate to respond in 5 business days or a period reasonable to the request, both of my requests received a written response stating it would take five months to answer — five months or 30 times longer than the legislative intent.  The NYPD has 15,000 non uniformed employees available to fulfill the legislative mandate to permit participatory government.  If it wanted to honor the legislative mandate, it could assign more staff to the Records Access Department.  Until it does, it is functioning in contravention of the state legislative mandate.

In the 2010 book “Heat and Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists” by Mike Wallace and Beth Knobel, the producer of the 60 Minutes episode on the surveillance center, Robert Anderson, is quoted as follows:

“Mike [Wallace] has always said that we are seekers of truth, and that’s what we are.  We are seekers of truths that people would be better off knowing, and that they probably don’t know.  And we are looking for something that is hopefully of some significance, because the more significant it is, the better the story it is for us.”

There are two significant stories at the surveillance center at 55 Broadway.  The first is that the largest police force in the country has secretly deputized as its partners the same giant Wall Street firms that are serially charged with looting the public but never prosecuted, no matter how big the crime. The second significant story is that the largest police force in the country has tapped the public coffers to the tune of $150 million to operate what legal experts say is an illegal program.

Kevin Tedesco, Executive Director of 60 Minutes, had this to say about my concerns with the program:  “We find your inquiry somewhat puzzling.  This was a story about defending against terrorism, probably the most important issue of our times.  You have only to look at 60 Minutes’ record to see that we frequently report on Wall Street institutions, the most recent of which, “Prosecuting Wall Street” was broadcast on December 4.  Robert Anderson, the producer of the story on the command center, produced  “The Next Housing Shock,”  an investigation about misleading and fake mortgage documentation that cast a harsh light on financial institutions when it was broadcast on August 7 and April 3.  No one told us what to report or not report in those stories and neither did anyone in this one.  We appreciate the chance to respond.”

I willingly concede that 60 Minutes regularly provides outstanding investigative reports.  I have previously referenced their groundbreaking  work in my writing.  Robert Anderson’s work on “The Next Housing Shock” brings the audacity and collusiveness of the foreclosure crimes into sharp focus and admirably serves the public interest.

But rather than deflecting my criticisms, Mr. Tedesco ends up making my case by pointing to the December 4 broadcast of “Prosecuting Wall Street.”  This is a story alleging systemic corruption at Citigroup made by a Vice President of the firm, Richard Bowen; a man so confident of his facts that he testified before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.   Mr. Bowen had his duties reassigned and was retaliated against and told to remain off the premises once he brought the corruption to the attention of the most senior executives at Citigroup.

Charges like these have been made for over a decade against Citigroup by other key employees.  No senior executives have ever been prosecuted.  Now a Citigroup representative sits alongside police in a high tech center where it can monitor the comings and goings of pedestrians, including potential whistleblowers.  If that’s not significant, I don’t know what is.

Pam Martens worked on Wall Street for 21 years. She spent the last decade of her career advocating against Wall Street’s private justice system, which keeps its crimes shielded from public courtrooms.  She maintains, along with Russ Martens, an ongoing archive dedicated to this financial era at  www.WallStreetOnParade.com. She has no security position, long or short, in any company mentioned in this article.  She is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. She can be reached at pamk741@aol.com

Pam Martens has been a contributing writer at CounterPunch since 2006. Martens writes regularly on finance at www.WallStreetOnParade.com.