FBI spying on lawful protestors

The Government vs. The People? (FCN, 03/13/2003)

WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com) – Civil libertarians and anti-war activists have condemned the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Attorney General John Ashcroft for issuing detailed instructions to local police departments on how to target and monitor lawful, peaceful protest demonstrations under the guise of fighting terrorism.


The FBI has been collecting information on the tactics, training and organization of anti-war demonstrators who have done nothing illegal, according to a Nov. 23 New York Times report citing a confidential bureau memorandum and several interviews.

Faced with growing opposition to the war and occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration has apparently targeted its political enemies, unleashing the FBI, activists warn.

“It’s a clear example of the line (used by the Bush administration) abroad: ‘You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists,'” Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a spokesperson for the International A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition–one of the targeted groups–told The Final Call.

The memo was circulated to law enforcement agencies on Oct. 15, ahead of antiwar demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco. It reportedly detailed how protestors have sometimes used “training camps” to rehearse, used the Internet to raise funds, and employed gas masks to defend against police tear gas, according to the report.

“It’s apparent that under the Bush and Ashcroft administration, they see the exercise of First Amendment rights as synonymous with terrorism. This must be understood as the tip of the iceberg,” Ms. Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney with the Partnership for Civil Justice and the National Lawyers Guild, continued. On Oct. 25, 100,000 protestors participated in an ANSWER-led demonstration in Washington, marching under the slogan “Bring the Troops Home Now!”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also denounced the memorandum. “Attorney General Ashcroft has dismissed critics of the Justice Department’s tactics as ‘hysterical’ and has even said that such criticism aids the terrorists,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero in a statement. “But this bulletin confirms that the federal government is targeting innocent Americans engaged in nothing more than lawful protest and dissent. The American people deserve an explanation for what is clearly a return to the days of J. Edgar Hoover’s spying tactics.”

The FBI effort is nothing more than a return to the Hoover-era tactics of the COINTELPRO years, when Black leaders, the antiwar movement, pacifists and a host of other organizations and constituencies around the country were targeted and treated as if they were dangerous enemies, spied on and arrested, according to Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

“There was a long-standing effort in popular mobilization, as well as in the Congress, to rein in the FBI,” Ms. Bennis said in an interview. “The claim was made that this is the ‘post-J. Edgar Hoover FBI’–that they don’t do that anymore. But, what we now know is that they have been doing exactly the same thing.”

Citing no specific intelligence of suspected unlawful activity and admitting that the FBI has no information about any planned unlawful activity, the bulletin nevertheless urges local law enforcement agencies to be alert to possible indicators of protest activity and to report any potentially illegal acts to federal authorities.

FBI officials said to The Times that the intelligence gathering effort was aimed at identifying anarchists and “extremist elements” plotting violence, not at monitoring the political speech of law-abiding protestors.

“The FBI is not interested in individuals who are exercising their constitutional rights of protest,” the newspaper quoted FBI spokesman Bill Carter. “It’s only the groups who would be involved in violent or criminal activity where there would be an interest.

“The extent of scrutiny is that any time there is a large gathering of people, there is a potential for an act of terrorism,” said Mr. Carter.

Civil libertarians and activists disagree.

“The FBI’s so-called anti-terrorism efforts have intensely focused on political dissent since the resurgence of the social justice and peace movement,” Ms. Verheyden-Hilliard said. “The big lie being foisted on the public is that these are post-September 11 counter-measures, when in fact we have uncovered in litigation that the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, as well as the District of Columbia Police Department, have been conducting illegal domestic spying operations against political groups and activists since well before Sept. 11, 2001.

“This has nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with using the repressive apparatus of the state as a political tool,” she said.

The ACLU said that it has already seen proof that peaceful activities have been monitored. As a part of its “Spy Files” investigation in connection with a lawsuit against the Denver, Colo. police, the ACLU discovered that the FBI has been collecting information about peaceful protest activities that have nothing to do with terrorism or any other criminal activity.

The ACLU has also filed a lawsuit against the Secret Service for its continuous practice of allowing pro-Bush demonstrators to remain visible to television news cameras during presidential appearances, while they have rounded up anti-Bush protestors and herded them into pens or designated areas far from the media.

The country is “dangerously close” to being forced to march in “lock-step” with the Bush administration ideology, according to Ms. Bennis. “What we’re seeing is a pall of fear over the public, over the Congress and over the courts, where everyone seems afraid to challenge the trajectory towards empire of the Bush administration.

“Information that we’re getting now about the levels of surveillance reflects a kind of domestic version of the perpetual war which is at the heart of the Bush administration strategy internationally. The result is–if people are afraid, the ideologues who are driving this war will have the final say.”

Recently, in Las Vegas, a representative of the Office of Homeland Security openly telephoned a group which organized a protest during Pres. Bush’s Nov. 25 visit to that city. The caller wanted to know how many demonstrators were expected and their affiliated organizations, Peggy Maize Johnson, executive director of Citizen Alert, told The Las Vegas Sun.

“It bothered me,” said Ms. Johnson, whose organization has been raising awareness of potential dangers associated with burying nuclear waste at the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nevada nuclear repository. “That has a chilling effect,” she said of the phone call.

Such tactics are catching on. At the University of Texas, Austin–the nation’s largest university–the Young Conservatives of Texas at UT have published a “watch list” containing the names of 10 professors the group accuses of using their classrooms to promote personal agendas and to “indoctrinate” students.

There is a “serious danger that people will feel afraid,” according to Ms. Bennis. “When you combine the news of the level of surveillance that’s underway over the broad antiwar movement, with the heavy-handed, repressive tactics of the police in Miami last week during the (free trade) demonstrations, and you compare that with the ongoing fear that exists in the Arab and Muslim communities, and the immigrant communities overall, because that’s who’s been targeted more directly than anyone else–this goes dangerously badly for encouraging public discourse and public debate over these policies,” Ms. Bennis said.

Indeed, it is the popularity of the message espoused by the antiwar groups that the administration considers to be dangerous, said Ms. Verheyden-Hilliard.

“It’s an effort at intimidation by the FBI and the U.S. government against a growing mass movement of people in the United States, who this administration recognizes are opposing their criminal war,” she maintains. “This is an effort to try and chill political speech and opposition that can bring an end to this administration.”