Notions postulate of tyranny
In the 1960s and ’70s, and even before that, the Federal Bureau of Investigation ran a counter-intelligence program, known as COINTELPRO, where federal agents spied on, infiltrated and disrupted anti-war, civil rights and social justice organizations.
In 1975, after COINTELPRO was revealed in a congressional hearing, Congressman Don Edwards of California said, in reference to the Bureau’s program, that there must be no exceptions to our constitutional safeguards, “regardless of the unattractiveness or noisy militancy of some private citizens or organizations.”
“The philosophy supporting COINTELPRO,” he said, “is the subversive notion that any public official, the President or a policeman, possesses a kind of inherent power to set aside the Constitution whenever he thinks the public interest, or ‘national security’ warrants it. That notion is postulate of tyranny.”
Some say, since 9/11, those notions postulate of tyranny have crept back into America’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Activism is terrorism
Since September 2010, 23 anti-war and international solidarity activists have been subpoenaed by the FBI as part of a growing terrorism investigation. The Bureau said it is looking for evidence concerning material support for terrorist organizations.
It started on Sept. 24, when the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force conducted a series of raids on anti-war and international solidarity activists in Minneapolis and Chicago. Computers, cell phones, mailing lists, documents, videos, books and passports were seized by agents. Thirteen activists from Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan were ordered to appear before federal grand juries.
The FBI was seeking documents concerning the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Hezbollah – organizations the State Department has labeled terrorist groups.
Carlos Montes was one of several people named on the FBI’s Minneapolis search warrant concerning the Anti-War Committee, a Minnesota-based peace group, and their alleged material support of terrorist organizations. Montes is an organizer for the Southern California Immigration Coalition in Los Angeles. Though named on the warrant, the FBI has not contacted him.
Montes assumes he was on the warrant for helping the Anti-War Committee organize protests for the 2008 Republican National Convention. The organization was instrumental in organizing the actions, which he endorsed and later participated in.
“Historically, the FBI has attacked and harassed progressive movements – the black civil rights movement, the peace movement,” he said in an interview with LA Activist. “I see this as a continuation of that repression against people who take a strong stand against the status quo.”
Since then more have received subpoenas. Most recently, on Dec. 21, Maureen Murphy, managing editor for the website Electronic Intifada, was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury. Her involvement in the Chicago-based Palestine Solidarity Group appears to be the basis of the investigation.
Jim Fennerty, one of the lead attorneys who is working with the subpoenaed activists, describes the raids and subpoenas as an “attack on the solidarity movement.” He told LA Activist that the activists have refused to testify before the grand juries, though some have been called back, and none have been indicted for any crime or found in contempt.
According to Fennerty, the situation for these activists can become difficult if the government grants them immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony. In these situations a witness loses their Fifth Amendment rights and not testifying could mean imprisonment for the duration of the grand jury – which could be months long.
“They say it is coercion, not punishment,” he said. “If you are sitting in jail, I still think it is punishment.”
Peter Bibring, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, said constitutionally protected speech should not be the basis of an investigation – something the FBI denies doing – and fears such raids will cause people to pause before getting involved in political dissent.
“If there is no link to criminal activity, the government shouldn’t be using these kinds of aggressive investigatory powers,” he said in an interview with LA Activist. “It creates an enormous chilling effect on people who want to exercise their First Amendment rights.”
The FBI’s actions may seem strange at first glance. Peace activists, for instance, do not have a reputation for international terrorism. However, it is a newly constructed legal language and a fear-infused political climate that has allowed peaceful citizens to get in the crosshairs of the Bureau.
“There is a reasonable indication that programs and investigative techniques, that have been instituted in the name of fighting terrorism, have suffered from a kind of ‘mission creep’ where they’ve been more broadly deployed against individuals who may not be involved in terrorism, but may just be involved in First Amendment activity,” said Bibring.
A ‘pall’ over dissent
In June 2010, the Supreme Court upheld a federal statute that bans material support of foreign terrorist organizations. In Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the court ruled that the First Amendment does not protect citizens who assist terrorist groups, even if they are assisting organizations in obtaining peaceful settlements to conflicts.
Jim Lafferty, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild in Los Angeles, called the Supreme Court decision a “draconian” ruling that has “cast quite a pall” over the peace movement and the First Amendment rights of Americans.
“If we really care about terrorism, we should be applauding [efforts to broker peace], not saying that it would be a crime because you would be giving material support to a terrorist organization,” he told LA Activist.
Former President Jimmy Carter said the work of his humanitarian organization, the Carter Center, is threatened by the decision. According to The Washington Post, he said the statute “inhibits the work of human rights and conflict resolution groups.”
“The vague language of the law leaves us wondering if we will be prosecuted for our work to promote peace and freedom,” he said.
Lafferty admits that politics affects the Supreme Court and that recent decisions are a product of the nation’s current political climate, one that doesn’t take kindly to dissent.
“It’s hard to believe that a lot of what we’ve seen post-9/11 we would have seen pre-9/11,” he said. “When the country is at war, the courts are going to act differently than when the country isn’t at war.”
Material support for terrorists is just one way in which activists have been swept up into the war on terror.
Ironically, just four days prior to the FBI raids in the Midwest, a Justice Department report criticized the Bureau for inappropriately targeting left-leaning activist groups between 2001 and 2006.
According to The Washington Post, the Bureau was criticized for investigating the environmental group Greenpeace. Agents monitored the organization for three years, and even put some Greenpeace members on terrorist watch lists.
The FBI also spied on PETA and a Catholic organization that advocates peace. The department report stopped short of accusing the FBI of targeting these groups because of their politics.
Similar stories have surfaced recently concerning the Department of Homeland Security.
In September 2010, it was revealed that a Pennsylvania DHS intelligence bulletin warned of environmental extremism. The report listed dates of interest that consisted of demonstrations, governmental hearings concerning environmental issues and even the screening of a documentary.
The bulletin borrows from an FBI report that warns “extremists will continue to commit criminal activity against not only the energy companies, but against secondary or tertiary targets.” However, when asked by ProPublica about extremist criminal activity, Joseph Elias, a captain with the Pennsylvania State Police Domestic Security Division, had no knowledge of such crimes.
“We haven’t had any incidents of any significance to date where we have identified a problem, or any environmental extremists,” he said.
As a result of the report being made public, the Pennsylvania Homeland Security director resigned and apologized to those who felt their rights had been violated.
In October 2010, Fox News reported that an office within the DHS, called Fraud Detection and National Security, had been encouraging its agents to befriend people on social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, to spy on them. Agents were also told to target websites such as NPR and the political commentary site DailyKos.
“There is a deep concern that both local and federal law enforcement are aiming their resources at innocuous activity,” said Bibring.
Behind the government targeting its civilians in the war on terror is the broad language of the PATRIOT Act. According to a 2002 ACLU statement, the law “expanded the definition of terrorism to cover ‘domestic,’ as opposed to international, terrorism.”
“The definition of domestic terrorism is broad enough to encompass the activities of several prominent activist campaigns and organizations,” said the ACLU. “Greenpeace, Operation Rescue, Vieques Island and WTO protesters and the Environmental Liberation Front have all recently engaged in activities that could subject them to being investigated as engaging in domestic terrorism.”
The effects of wide-ranging legal language manifested itself clearly in 2009 when it was discovered that the Dept. of Defense was telling its employees that protests were an example of a “low-level terrorism activity.”
It appears that activists can only expect more of the same in coming years. In September 2010, the directors of the FBI and DHS and the chief of the National Counterterrorism Center told Congress that America faced a rising threat from “homegrown terrorists.”
“What a lot of us fear,” said Lafferty, “[is that the law] isn’t going to be restricted simply to what we’ve come to think of as terrorism – people who try to bomb a bus or shopping center – that it could refer to people … who have too radical an idea about how to change America.”
Déjà vu all over again
Now that activists are once again being targeted, it leaves some to believe that COINTELPRO has returned.
“I think we are way past [COINTELPRO],” said Lafferty. “You have the FBI doing exactly what it did during Vietnam and, in the case of the Muslim community and the FBI infiltration of the mosques, you’ve got them doing it openly.”
“Now the government makes no secret about the fact that it’s spying on, wiretapping and infiltrating everybody,” he added. “Nobody doubts that anymore, and they have better tools to do it with. So we are way past that.”
Blase Bonpane, a long-time human rights advocate and director of Office of the Americas, an LA-based peace and international justice advocacy group, said the FBI’s behavior in recent years is “tantamount to COINTELPRO.”
“I remember it well,” he said in an interview with LA Activist. “[The FBI] was very active then and we were all impacted by it. And yes, it’s back. It doesn’t make any difference what they call it.”
If COINTELPRO-style tactics are again being used against political dissent, then activists may have more to fear than their 1960s counterparts like Lafferty suggests. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the U.S. government spent billions of dollars expanding its already significant intelligence apparatus. As the war on terror began to target U.S. citizens, so followed the prying eyes of America’s numerous spy agencies.
The Washington Post reported as part of an ongoing investigation that the U.S. has “some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies” working on counterterrorism, homeland security and various intelligence-gathering projects in roughly 10,000 locations across the country. There are now nearly one million people in America that have top-secret security clearances, with intelligence analysts publishing 50,000 reports a year.
Before 9/11, there were 35 FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces like the ones that raided the anti-war activists in the Midwest. Today, there are 106.
Los Angeles County is home to the Joint Regional Intelligence Center, the first regional counter-terrorism “fusion center” in the country. It houses intelligence analysts from the FBI, the LAPD, LA County Sheriffs Department and other agencies. According to the Los Angeles Times, at the facility’s opening in 2006, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said the center would focus on domestic terrorism.
There are 72 local fusion centers across the U.S. that were created after 9/11. Fusion centers now obtain “suspicious activity reports” from local authorities and feed them into national databases.
It was the LAPD that invented “suspicious activity reports” in early 2008. According to USA Today, the program provided officers with a system of reporting “the smallest levels of suspicious behavior and activities that could actually reveal terrorist ‘dry runs’ that might have previously been overlooked.”
The program, which is aimed at both criminal and non-criminal activity, includes trespassing or noticing suspicious packages.
“It includes activities such as taking photographs of no apparent aesthetic value,” said Bibring. “If that is suspicious activity, according to the judgment of an LAPD officer, then there are a lot of people in Los Angeles who are in trouble.”
The program quickly got the attention of police departments around the country. Today, the program is national. According to the Los Angeles Times, “More than two-thirds of the U.S. population lives in areas now covered by such reporting, which is designed to take note of behavior that is not illegal.”
Along with a beefed up intelligence infrastructure, critics say the FBI has little to no restrictions on its spying. According to the Attorney General’s guidelines for domestic operations, the Bureau investigates federal crimes, threats to national security and anything related to foreign intelligence.
Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said in an recent interview with the International Socialist Review that the government has over the years steadily removed restrictions from the agency’s intelligence operations.
“After you read [the current guidelines] and you compare them to the earlier ones, you realize now the FBI can do anything it wants,” he said “It can target anyone. The FBI can be, and probably is, everywhere.”
Activists are concerned that government surveillance, infiltration and prosecution of political activities will have a negative impact on people’s willingness to dissent – a cornerstone of democracy. Since the FBI raids in September there have been demonstrations against the Bureau around the country. Also, the Committee to Stop FBI Repression was formed, which seeks to cease the government attacks on peace activists.
Despite the overwhelming shift to a police state in recent years, there is still an occasional difference of opinion still found at the highest levels of government. According to The Washington Post, after the decision was made on Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, Justice Stephen G. Breyer read his summary of dissent from the bench.
“Our decisions must reflect the Constitution’s grant of foreign affairs and defense powers to the president and to Congress but without denying our own special judicial obligation to protect the constitutional rights of individuals,” he said. “That means that national security does not always win.”
In the meantime, however, national security continues to win. In early December, the DHS announced the incorporation of its “If You See Something, Say Something” program in more than 230 Walmart stores across the country. The program, which is already employed by other institutions, encourages citizens to report “indicators of terrorism, crime and other threats to law enforcement authorities,” said DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in a news release.
The DHS intends to expand this program to help Americans “remain vigilant and play an active role in keeping the country safe.”
“The manipulation of fear, which is the lowest form of corrupt politics, has its impact,” said Bonpane. “Probably the reason for the raids is to create fear.”
“We are in a very bad situation,” he added. “We are in a situation where it seems that the only workable projects at this time are civil disobedience, mass mobilization and non-cooperation.”
Although Lafferty said there isn’t much “breathing space” anymore for citizens to exercise their rights, he still finds hope if the citizenry mobilizes in defense of itself.
“We still do have a enough room where if we had the inclination and the backbone to do it we could have a huge protest and a huge pressure being brought [upon the government],” he said. “If you really want to defend the Bill of Rights, the best way to defend it is to get out in the streets and do so, and to exercise those rights. That’s the best defense against this and that has always been true.”