The Return of COINTELPRO: Government Infiltration of Activist GroupsWednesday, August 12, 2009 at 10:15 am by Max Solie
Surveillance of First Amendment protected speech and political activism unfortunately boasts a long and sordid history in the United States, well before its recent continuation under the Obama administration. Such surveillance and infiltration deeply threatens constitutional rights and should raise alarms, especially given its reflection of systemic problems, rather than isolated abuses by particular over-zealous law enforcement officials.
BORDC will soon release the Human Rights Abuse Database (HRAD), capturing these and other infringements of civil rights and liberties by counterterrorism authorities. This post collects just a few of the many stories documenting unconstitutional government invasion of First Amendment protected activity.
Read a brief history of FBI surveillance of activist groups during the “war on terror” after the jump.
Infiltration of activist groups was predictable based on Bush-era policies. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft authorized the FBI to dramatically expand its domestic surveillance activities, before further expanding its authority in 2003. Ostensibly crafted to enhance counterterrorism efforts, the resulting surveillance came to serve political purposes as it was routinely directed against activist groups and individuals expressing opposition to the Bush administration.
Many law enforcement agencies engaged in surveillance of activist groups. In some cases, local or state police monitored lawful activity, while in others FBI agents acted through a Joint Terrorism Task Force. In some cases, even military personnel appear to have been involved.
Surveillance itself took a variety of forms: government agents have
- monitored activist websites,
- sent agents to monitor and record the identities of individuals attending lawful rallies and demonstrations,
- conducted interrogations of group members or people who attended events,
- compiled databases of names, organizations, and activities, and
- posed undercover as members of groups pursuing lawful activities in order to gain inside information on the groups’ activities.
At a time when the specter of genuine terrorism loomed large in our nation’s priorities, federal and local law enforcement agencies squandered time and resources conducting unconstitutional surveillance of peaceful activist groups. According to government documents, surveillance under the guise of counterterrorism violated the rights of individuals in as many as 150 organizations, including Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), various Muslim charities, and a Catholic Workers Group that fights poverty. The government conducted this surveillance without any evidence of criminal activity.
Unfortunately, the exact scope of the FBI’s domestic surveillance of activist groups remains unclear. Though the FBI has released thousands of pages detailing anti-dissident surveillance, these have been heavily redacted, in many cases with only the names of particular groups or organizations visible. But the picture painted by the released documents is one of broad abuse by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, which have targeted peaceful groups for political purposes. The “war on terror” has, in effect, criminalized dissent.
FBI uses “source” to spy on Greenpeace. Since at least 2002, Greenpeace had been the subject of surveillance and intelligence gathering by the FBI. Highly redacted FBI documents reveal the use of a “source” within the organization from whom government agents collected information about peaceful protest activities.
Antiwar group Peace Fresno was infiltrated by the FBI for two years. Aaron Kilner, the Joint Terrorism Task Force agent who spied on the group’s regular meetings, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2003, and his obituary photo alerted Peace Fresno group members to his true identity as a government agent who had infiltrated their meetings. Fresno County Sheriff Richard Pierce admitted in March 2006 that he had placed an agent in the peace group to gather information. However, under a deal reached with the state attorney general, no information from that investigation will be released.
JTTF and antiwar protestors in Iowa. The Drake University chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild (NLG) came under suspicion after it organized a November 2003 campus anti-war protest and helped prepare a peaceful demonstration at the Iowa National Guard Headquarters. In February 2004, the U.S. Attorney subpoenaed the university president and four people who attended the event and issued a gag order. A local sheriff’s deputy, identifying himself as a member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), served the subpoenas. After the NLG filed a motion to quash the subpoenas, the FBI withdrew the subpoenas and dropped the case.
Two local police officers in Oakland infiltrate an anti-war group. In 2003, two officers infiltrated an anti-war protest group in order to spy on the group’s activities and influence its actions. The two officers were even elected as leaders of the group.
New York City police and the 2004 Republican National Convention. In 2004, the New York City Police Department spied on activist groups throughout the country and co-opted other police agencies for information on peace activists planning protests at the Republican National Convention. FBI agents visited many of these activists prior to the convention and discouraged them from attending.
PETA audited, members interrogated. An ACLU Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request elicited a heavily redacted document from the Department of Justice, which revealed that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was under surveillance because it was suspected of ties to the Animal Liberation Front. The suspicions were unfounded. PETA was audited twice and its members were interrogated, often for hours.
Undercover police spy on peace activists in Maryland. Over a 14-month period between 2005 and 2006, undercover state police “repeatedly spied on peace activists and anti-death penalty groups […] and entered the names of some in a law-enforcement database of people thought to be terrorists or drug traffickers.” This was done despite any evidence of criminal activities, according to records made public in 2008.
Pentagon shuts down TALON database. The Pentagon’s Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) system, begun in 2003, was meant to collect domestic intelligence on threats to military members and families. However, the TALON database soon became filled with reports of peaceful antiwar protests and tourists snapping photos of bridges. In 2007, Undersecretary of Defense James R. Clapper, Jr., stated that the Pentagon “has assessed the results of the TALON program and does not believe they merit continuing the program as currently constituted, particularly in light of its image in Congress and the media.”
FBI infiltrates Iowa City activist group. In 2008, the FBI infiltrated an activist group in Iowa City and observed law-abiding individuals, collecting detailed information, including what cars they drove and where they worked.
Civilian Army contractor infiltrates Seattle peace group. For two years, a criminal intelligence analyst with the US Army, using a false name, infiltrated and reported on the activities of the Olympia-based anti-war group, Port Militarization Resistance. His identity was accidently discovered after a public records request to the city of Olympia. An investigation into the matter is ongoing.