Army surveillance, like Army regimentation, is at war with the principles of the First Amendment. . . There can be no influence more paralyzing of that objective than Army surveillance. When an intelligence officer looks over every nonconformist’s shoulder in the library, or walks invisibly by his side in a picket line, or infiltrates his club, the America once extolled as the voice of liberty heard around the world no longer is cast in the image which Jefferson and Madison designed . . .
While originally written in dissent from the Laird v. Tatum in 1979, Supreme Court Justice William Douglas could have been describing Panagacos v. Towery. The Towery case was decided just a few weeks ago by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, arising from the infiltration of activist groups in Tacoma and Olympia, WA. From 2007 to 2009, John Towery, a criminal intelligence analyst for the army, infiltrated and spied on these groups, going by the name John Jacob.
Unfortunately, Justice Douglas’ statement is from the dissent in the Supreme Court’s ruling in Laird v. Tatum, a 1979 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the fear of surveillance, leading to chilling of First Amendment activity, was too speculative to support a claim. This precedent, along with other obstacles, has made it almost impossible to sue the Pentagon for domestic spying.
However, one National Lawyers Guild attorney, Larry Hildes, is hoping to change that. A December 17 ruling by the Ninth Circuit breathed new life in his efforts.
Towery’s identity was discovered almost by accident. Brendan Maslaukas Dunn, an activist with Students for a Democratic Society, Port Militarization Resistance, and the Industrial Workers of the World made a Freedom of Information Act request for any communications between the Olympia police and the military concerning anarchists. He recounts:
One of the documents was an email that was sent between personnel in the military, and the email address that was attached to this email was of John J. Towery. We didn’t know who that was, but several people did a lot of research to find out who that was, and they identified that person as being John Jacob.
It is unclear exactly how much information John Towery shared with law enforcement and the military, but there are at least 133 pages of intelligence documents, including Towery’s spying contract with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, available online.