If you are a member of a mosque, a person of color or a member of an organization that advocates for peace, the environment, animals, economic justice or just about any cause, this comic book is a heads up: the FBI (or the state or local police) is sending paid informants into your community and organizations to spy on you. Worse, they may try to entrap you or one of your peers in a manufactured plot that could end you up in jail.
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? You aren’t doing anything wrong, so why should the FBI care about you? And wouldn’t that be against the Constitution anyway? Aren’t we supposed to be free to worship, speak, peaceably assemble or just plain be, without government interference?
Well we should be, but we aren’t, and that is a huge problem in a country that is supposed to be a free and democratic society.
The FBI has a long history of playing dirty against immigrants, people of color, religious minorities and progressive or radical activists. Here are just a few examples:
- The Palmer Raids (named after Attorney General Palmer): One of the first actions of the newly formed Bureau of Investigation and its Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1919 was to orchestrate the round up of 3,000 “radicals” and deportation of over 500 immigrants based on their ethnicity and/or political views.
- Detention Lists: From 1919 until at least 1978, the FBI maintained lists of immigrants and dissidents (such as people who distribute “literature and propaganda favorable to a foreign power and opposed to the American way of life”) to be detained in case of so-called “national emergency”.
- Targeting Hollywood: The FBI investigated actors, including silent film star Charlie Chaplin, based on their political views. The Bureau was aided by both Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan (when he was an actor), who were FBI informants, feeding names of actors, writers and directors who they considered ‘subversive.’
- COINTELPRO (COunter INtelligence PROgram): An umbrella program that encompassed many of the FBI’s domestic spying operations. Here are just a few examples of COINTELPRO’s efforts to “disrupt,” “discredit,” and “neutralize” domestic protest groups:
- Having infiltrated the Student Free Speech Movement in the 1960s, the FBI sent letters to students’ parents warning them of their child’s “subversive” activity.
- To prevent the rise of a Black “Messiah,” the FBI subjected Martin Luther King Jr. to a decade-long campaign that included wiretapping his home and hotel rooms and spreading nasty rumors about him to Congress, foreign leaders and the press (even after he was assassinated).
- The FBI targeted the “New Left” and anti-war movements in the 1960s, creating dossiers on over 20,000 Americans and groups like Students for a Democratic Society, Women’s Strike for Peace, and Clergy and Laity Concerned about the War in Vietnam.
These activities didn’t stay secret forever. In the 1970s, a congressional committee known as the Church Committee conducted an extensive investigation, and in 1975-76 issued 14 reports full of revelations of illegal activities by the FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies.
The American people were horrified, and Congress passed serious reforms to prevent the intelligence agencies from spying on people in the U.S. without court approval. The Attorney General (who oversees the FBI) also wrote strict guidelines to prevent the FBI from spying on people based on their First Amendment activity.
For a short while it seemed as though the FBI might keep its focus on people who actually break the law, but pretty quickly the rules meant to keep the FBI (and the CIA and NSA) in line started to get overturned. And the FBI started spying on innocent people again.
After 9/11, things went downhill pretty fast. The PATRIOT Act gave the FBI new powers and the agency quickly began to abuse them to sweep up vast amounts of data on virtually everyone in the U.S. The FBI guidelines were rewritten to allow the FBI to open an investigation (they call it an “assessment”) on anyone for just about any reason, so they can search databases, send an informant, infiltrate a group or use other intrusive means to get information on someone. The FBI can even search through your trash to see if they can find information they can use to force you to become an informant.
Leaked documents, documents liberated through the Freedom of Information Act and even reports written by the government all confirm that the FBI is indeed infiltrating peaceful groups based on their political or religious activities, mapping America’s communities based on race and ethnicity, silencing whistleblowers, targeting journalists and lying to Congress.
We think the FBI’s use of informants is a particular problem:
Manufacturing Terror: the FBI’s Entrap & Demonize Strategy
As the cell door slammed shut on the last of the five Occupy Cleveland activists to be sentenced for involvement in an FBI-led plot to blow up a bridge, you could almost hear the diabolical laughter of J. Edgar Hoover. He couldn’t have done it better himself.
The Occupy movement burst out of winter hibernation on May Day 2012 with dozens of protests in cities across the country – but not in Cleveland. The Cleveland May Day rally was cancelled after five “self-proclaimed anarchists” were arrested and charged with trying to blow up a bridge. The FBI staged a high profile press conference to announce the arrests, taking care to make clear the connection to Occupy.
The FBI downplayed, however, the fact that an FBI informant (known as “Shaquille”) facilitated nearly every step of the “terror” plot. As it turns out, the FBI’s most successful counterterror operations follow the same pattern: paid informants come into a community, latch onto the most vulnerable members, befriend them, give them gifts, money, drugs and/or alcohol, bully them into joining fake terror plots, and provide everything that is needed to carry out the plot. Then, BAM! the fake plot is exposed, people’s lives are ruined and the FBI is able to demonize a whole community or movement.
We call this pattern “manufacturing terrorism,” and it has played out over and over in Muslim communities in New York, California, Florida and elsewhere as well as being used against environmentalists, anarchists, the Occupy movement and others.
The Occupy Cleveland case shows the troubling implications of manufacturing terrorism. It may be the most successful FBI attempt to disrupt and discredit a movement since COINTELPRO. Not only was the FBI able to smear anarchists and stop the Cleveland May Day rally from happening, but two days after the arrests, the Occupy Cleveland camp was shut down completely. Moreover, the five young men swept up in the plot will spend from six to 12 years in jail for a crime they never would have committed if they hadn’t met “Shaquille”.
The second story in this book tells a similar tale of vulnerability and manipulation, this time at a mosque in the economically depressed city of Newburgh, New York. Even the trial judge was appalled by the case of the Newburgh 4, saying about one of the men, “Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.” The four men caught in the plot will spend 25 years in prison, but the repercussions extend beyond the four, because the case provides “evidence” for the media and unscrupulous politicians to demonize all Muslims and equate terrorism with Islam, and the faux terror plot is presented as real, and used as justification for civil liberties abuses in the war on terror.
These are not the only examples of this unethical practice. Eric McDavid, an environmental activists set up by an FBI informant named “Anna,” is serving 20 years [UPDATE: McDavid was recently released from jail after a judge ruled the government withheld crucial evidence about “Anna” at trial]. It took the government three trials to finally get a jury to convict members of the Liberty City Seven for talking about blowing up the Sears tower in Chicago – a crime they were clearly incapable of pulling off. The story of Bradley Crowder and David McKay is told in the award-winning documentary, Better This World. The two were “befriended” by an FBI informant who goaded them into adopting confrontational tactics for protests at the 2008 Republican Convention. They were arrested for making (but not using) Molotov Cocktails.
Our hope is that if you know how the FBI works, you can recognize the pattern and help protect your community and community members from the tactics law enforcement deploys against those whose politics, religion or ethnicity it doesn’t like.
The Defending Rights & Dissent and dozens of other local and national organizations are working to document, expose and put an end to the unethical and cruel way paid informants prey on our communities. Right now, it’s all perfectly legal, so self-defense through awareness is our best option. But in the long run, we need to change the way law enforcement is allowed to operate.
Confidential informants are the unseen foot soldiers in the government’s war on drugs. By some estimates, up to eighty per cent of all drug cases in the country involve them.
In Spite of Local Law Limiting Investigations of First Amendment Assemblies, DC Police Infiltrated Organizing Group for Inauguration Protests
Before the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) had arrested a single protester at Trump’s inauguration, undercover agents had infiltrated one of the main groups organizing protests according to court documents.
In response to revelations that the FBI and DHS have been spying on Black Lives Matter, Occupy, anti-pipeline activists and peace and solidarity activists, individuals and 131 civil society organizations asked the House and Senate Judiciary Committees to find out the true extent of improper spying.