Two days after the the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and Defending Dissent Foundation, sent a letter, signed by over sixty organizations, to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees demanding an investigation into political spying the by Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security, it was revealed that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and U.S. Marshals Service have also been keeping tabs on the Occupy movement.
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF), one of the many groups signed onto the letter, obtained documents from the ATF via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In the past, PCJF FOIA requests have uncovered FBI and DHS monitoring of the Occupy Wall Street movement and School of the Americas Watch. These documents played a fundamental role in providing concrete evidence of FBI and DHS spying in the BORDC/DDF letter to Congress.
The ATF’s role in spying on Occupy may come as a surprise, given loose connection between Occupy and alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives-related federal crimes. However, an Intelligence Research Specialist in the ATF’s New Orleans Field Office, normally responsible for investigations into narcotics trafficking organizations, arson rings and organized crime, prepared a report on Occupy for the New Orleans Police in advance of a planned Occupy New Orleans march. The state-by-state analysis found no incidents of violence to report, but the specialist helpfully documented the social media accounts of Occupy Baton Rouge, including how many likes and followers each account had.
The ATF Intelligence Research Specialist said there was a low-likelihood ATF would intervene in Occupy Baton Rouge protests, as requests for support from local police were unlikely unless the “situation escalates dramatically with the use of firearms, incendiary devices, or explosives.” Although there was no reported violence anywhere in the country, ATF went on to speculate on scenarios, in which their intervention might be justified. Two of these scenarios, involved threats to Occupy itself – a lone wolf or foreign terrorist organization wishing to target large crowds might target Occupy demonstrators.
An additional reason given was that Occupy protests could be infiltrated by homegrown extremist, “such as ALF (Animal Liberation Front) and ELF (Earth Liberation Front).” While the use of purely hypothetical threats as a pretext for law enforcement to surveil lawful political activity is disturbing, this reason is particularly insidious. The FBI used the threat that nonviolent groups could be infiltrated by unknown violent actors at an unspecified and unknowable future date to justify its surveillance of Occupy and the School of the Americas Watch. The reliance on such hypothetical threats means that the FBI could surveil almost any group to make sure unknown infiltrators don’t use it for terrorism purposes. That the FBI singles out activist groups for this would imply that they believe that activism uniquely relates to terrorism. The ATF’s use of similar rationale in drawing up a preliminary report on an Occupy march would indicate that this type of thinking is pervasive amongst federal law enforcement agencies.
Equally troubling is the examples cited, ALF and ELF. The FBI considers such groups to be “eco-terrorists,” which per the FBI constitutes the number one domestic terrorist threat – even though no one has even been killed by so-called eco-terrorists. The threat of “eco-terrorism” has been used by law enforcement, state and federal legislators, and corporations to smear environmentalist and animal rights groups as “terrorists” as part of the Green Scare. Green Scare smear tactics have been essential to passing legislation criminalizing whistleblowing, applying the label of “terrorist” to civil disobedience, and using individuals’ political viewpoints to single them out for more severe criminal sanctions. That convenient Green Scare scapegoats should serve as a rationale for monitoring other nonviolent groups shows the dangers presented to all movements when the state attempts to criminalize one form of dissent by making it synonymous with terrorism.
The ATF was not the only federal agency cooperating with the local police ahead of a planned Occupy march in New Orleans. The U.S. Marshals service, whose main function is tracking fugitives and escaped prisoners, was also on an email chain discussing the planned Occupy protest in New Orleans. The U.S. Marshals Service circulated an email from the Louisiana State Police that contained a list of “Known Anarchists and Protesters.” Why the Louisiana State Police is keeping a list of “Known Anarchist and Protesters,” or what criteria is used for establishing whether one is know to be an anarchist or a protester is unclear. The police should not be keeping lists of people who engage in political activity and federal law enforcement agencies should certainly not be circulating said lists.
The New Orleans ATF Field Office was not the only ATF Field Office to devote resources to planned Occupy Protests: the Philadelphia Field Office issued an advisory on an Occupy national gathering scheduled to take place the week of July 4. The advisory warns that while “there is no indication that acts of violence will will occur, take appropriate precautions as some of these groups have demonstrated violence in the past.” It is unclear what the ATF Philadelphia Field Officer is referring to, especially since the ATF New Orleans Field Office consulted 70 local fusion centers, including in Pennsylvania, and found no incidents of violence associated with Occupy Wall Street.
The Philadelphia ATF advisory contains a complete itinerary of the weeklong planned Occupy gathering, as well as a background section that traced Occupy’s history back to an article in the Canadian publication Adbusters. The background section described Occupy, as an “international protest movement against social and economic inequality, its primary goal to make the economic structure and power relations in society more favorable to the underclasses.” They also listed the group’s prime concern being that “large corporations and the global financial system control the world in a way that disproportionately benefits a minority, undermines democracy, and is unstable.”
The ATF advisory also devoted attention to the effects of the protest on traffic, listing the question “what effects will the Occupation have on public transportation” as an “intelligence gap.” How the effects of a nonviolent protest on local public transportation pertains to federal enforcement of laws pertaining to alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives is unclear. The ATF listed the question of whether local law enforcement had enough “holding facilities should conflict occur” as yet another intelligence gap. Again: how does any of this information relate to the central mission of the ATF?
While it may be surprising, given the obvious jurisdictional issues, that two ATF field officers and the U.S. Marshals Service dedicated time to compiling and disseminating intelligence on Occupy Wall Street prior to two local protests, this is indicative a larger trend in federal law enforcement. This trend is that federal law enforcement agencies view political protests and social movements, even ones they acknowledge as nonviolent, as having an inherent potential to turn into criminal acts. This is how FBI and DHS justifies continuous monitoring. It is why the ATF spent time culling through social media, news reports, and data collected by fusion centers to assemble “advisories” on the potential threats posed by publicly announced protests. This type of collection of data can never be benign, as it leads to the criminalization of dissent.