In September 2010, armed FBI agents fanned out across the Midwest to raid homes and offices and slap peace and solidarity activists with subpoenas to appear before a grand jury. In the dramatically invasive process, they dragged away computers, diaries, artwork and boxes full of personal papers.
The allegations were serious: material support of terrorist groups. Eventually 23 people would get grand jury subpoenas and face possible charges. But the episode turned out to be an epic fail by the FBI and U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. The raids provoked an outcry around the country, generating solidarity statements from over 300 organizations, and almost a dozen members of Congress. Moreover, not asingle activist cooperated with the grand jury, and no charges have been filed. And now, finally, we have the documents that provided the rationale for the raids.
They’ve been sealed for over three years because it was/is a “terrorism” investigation (or maybe just because they are embarrassing to the FBI). In any case, on February 26, a federal court ordered their release. And they are good. The documents reveal a lot. Not about any crime, but about the FBI’s inability to tell the difference between speech and terrorism, and about their nasty habit of infiltrating groups based on ideology without any evidence of a crime.
We learn that in 2008, Undercover Agent #1 (“UC1” in the documents, but known to activists as “Karen Sullivan”) was working undercover, spying on an anti-war group when she met a member of the Freedom Road Socialist Party (FRSO). Thus began her two-year secret mission to find a way to stick a criminal charge on someone, anyone, in the group. (And no, we don’t learn what nefarious crimes the anti-war group was doing to earn its own FBI spy).
Since FRSO’s activities were clearly protected by the First Amendment, UC1 turned to the fallback crime of choice when a real crime can’t be found: material support for terrorism, a crazy-vague statute which has become wildly popular with prosecutors because it requires “no proof that the defendant engaged in terrorism, aided or abetted terrorism, or conspired to commit terrorism.” It’s a crime of speech and association that has not only put scores, if not hundreds, of Muslim Americans and activists like Lynne Stewart in jail, but has hampered international aid and peacebuilding efforts of U.S. charities.
Over the course of two years, UC1 “spent hundreds of hours meeting with FRSO members… [and] recorded many of the conversations and meetings he/she had with FRSO members beginning in September 2008.” What we get in the affidavit is “hundreds of hours” boiled down to 40 double-spaced pages filled with revolutionary and idealistic rhetoric cherry-picked to create the illusion of danger.
The affidavit, filed by an FBI agent and member of the Minneapolis Joint Terrorism Task Force who was not the undercover agent, starts out boldly: “The Freedom Road Socialist Organization (“FRSO”) is a United States based organization, whose members share the goal of overthrowing the United States’ government… the FRSO supports at least two designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations: (1) the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (“FARC”)… and, (2) the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (“PFLP”).” But all that sound and fury signifies nothing except that the group was hard pressed to raise a few thousand dollars to send a delegation to Palestine and bring along a bit of extra money to contribute to the Palestinian Women’s Union (which is not designated as a terror organization).
In fact, the document shows that the FBI couldn’t find evidence of a crime after a full year of spying, so they took matters into their own hands, creating a crime and trying to ensnare the members of FRSO. We call it manufacturing terrorism, and the FBI has done it repeatedly in the Muslim community and in activist groups.
UC1 made up a story about her dad dying and leaving her one thousand dollars. She said it was his dying wish for that money to go to the PFLP. Over the course of a week in early March 2010, UC1 told this story to three different people in FRSO, clearly in an attempt to get them to incriminate themselves by offering to funnel the money to the PFLP. Instead, they told her to talk to [redacted]. Two months later, UC1 handed an envelope containing $1000 to [redacted], who said “Thank you. This will get to the PF.” But, oh snap! Those incriminating words were NOT caught on tape.
It’s useful to consider that by this point, the FBI had invested close to two years and hundreds of hours to entrap a small group of activists into sending $1000 to a terror group. Compare that to the over $2 million Chiquita Banana Company admitted to giving to FARC and another designated terrorist group in Columbia. The company agreed to pay a small fine for violating the material support statute. Or the tens of thousands of dollars former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, former FBI Director Louis Freeh and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton each accepted from the MEK, another designated terror group, to lobby on their behalf.
It’s also interesting to consider that the FBI wasn’t too worried about the damage that money would do in the hands of whomever the FRSO would send it to – they handed it over in cash with no strings attached (to this day, we don’t know where that money ended up). The affidavit abruptly ends the day after UC1 gave the money to [redacted], with one last attempt to record FRSO members asserting the money will go to the PFLP. Four months later, doors are being kicked in all over the Midwest. (Suffice to say that the doors at Chiquita Banana or Louis Freeh’s house were never raided by the FBI).
But somehow, the FRSO has managed to come out on top. Obviously it wasn’t corporate money or connections to politicians that carried the day. It was good old fashioned solidarity and political organizing that ensured the members of the groups weren’t isolated and prevented the activist as terrorist narrative from sticking. It’s a great lesson for every movement and every group that is targeted.
But sometimes it’s not easy to see the subterfuge or to stick together once the hammer falls. Over the past several years, FBI undercover agents and informants have successfully entrapped numerous activists from environmentalist Eric McDavid, sentenced to 20 years in jail in a bogus plot to bomb a dam, to Bradley Crowder and David McKay, convicted of plotting to throw Molotov cocktails at a protest, to five idealistic young Occupy activists spending years in jail for participating in a plot to blow up a bridge instigated by a paid informant.
The list of lives ruined by the FBI is too long (and this doesn’t even include the far greater numbers of Muslims who have been victimized). We need to build a proactive campaign to expose and confront FBI tactics to disrupt, entrap and demonize people’s movements. Even without supernatural powers, we can see into the future and predict with certainty that people’s movements that mobilize on a grand scale to confront the status quo will be targeted, especially those that threaten corporate profits.
It always starts with an agent or informant infiltrating an activist group without cause. The only way to break the pattern and insure that everyone’s rights are protected is to prohibit the FBI from investigating people and groups without an articulable suspicion of criminal activity.
The same week that the FBI was raiding activists’ homes, the Department of Justice Inspector General released a report documenting what we’ve always known to be true: the FBI consistently investigates groups (anti-war, environment, animal rights) based on First Amendment activity, not on any evidence of, or even suspicions of, criminal activity. They do it, because they are allowed to do it.
You all remember COINTELPRO, the FBI’s expansive program to disrupt and destroy any and all left-leaning groups in the 1950s-60s. When the program was uncovered, Congress held hearings to determine the extent of the unconstitutional shenanigans and was on the verge of statutorily limiting FBI authorities. Attorney General Levy staved off legislation by writing strict guidelines for the FBI to follow in conducting domestic investigations, stipulating that agents needed “specific and articulable facts” indicative of criminal activity to launch an investigation. Unfortunately, those standards are long gone, as successive attorneys general have loosened the rules so that agents can open an investigation (called an “assessment” in FBI speak) of anyone for any reason and can even use race or ethnicity as a determining factor in opening an investigation.
The time is ripe for congressional hearings to assess the extent of the unconstitutional spying and disruption of First Amendment activity, and for legislation to rein in the FBI and other police agencies. We know we can’t rely on Congress to take action, at least anytime soon, so we have to take matters into our own hands. As we survey the landscape of people’s movements, we see that the next major mobilization on the horizon will be the Keystone Pipeline protests. Tens of thousands of people are already committed to taking action if President Obama approves the pipeline. We already have evidence that law enforcement has been infiltrating groups opposed to the pipeline and asking for absurd penalties for protesters. Right now, we need to call out law enforcement and demand respect. We need to control the narrative so that the media don’t mindlessly parrot the FBI/corporate line that activists are terrorists or criminals.