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Spying on the Protesters | The Nation

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Spying on the Protesters

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In the 1970s Senate and House investigations established what many antiwar protesters and campus activists had believed for several years: that they were being watched and sometimes targeted by the government, including the National Guard and the FBI. Scattered evidence accumulating around the country suggests that the domestic surveillance that occurred during the Vietnam War may be returning, involving a more coordinated federal effort through the National Guard as well as the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs), teams of state and local police, and federal agents, led by the FBI.

Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

About the Author

John S. Friedman
John S. Friedman is the editor of The Secret Histories: Hidden Truths that Challenged the Past and Changed the World (...

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So far there are few high-profile incidents and actions that can't be written off as excessive zeal by individuals, but the incidents look disturbingly familiar to people who investigated the earlier clandestine actions of the government. "Back in the late 1960s and early '70s the FBI, the military, local police and campus police had their own bailiwicks and limited powers," said Christopher Pyle, a former investigator for Senator Frank Church's Select Committee on Intelligence, in the 1970s, and currently a professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College. "But operating today through the JTTFs and the combined intelligence and fusion centers, which join military analysts with law enforcement specialists, they are all part of one big club, effectively destroying the Fourth Amendment against unlimited search and seizure."

Several months ago the Army's inspector general and the California State Senate launched investigations of a California National Guard intelligence unit that had "monitored" an antiwar demonstration at the state capitol this past Mother's Day, partly organized by Cindy Sheehan's Gold Star Families for Peace. A report not yet publicly released by the inspector general found that there were other cases of domestic intelligence activity by the California Guard. Democratic State Senator Joseph Dunn, whose budget subcommittee oversees funding for the California Guard and who is conducting the state investigation, said financial improprieties may have occurred, as state and federal laws forbid such activities. Dunn told The Nation that he is looking into reports that the Guard in some ten other states, including New York, Colorado, Arizona and Pennsylvania, may have set up its own intelligence units and conducted similar monitoring of antiwar groups. Such controversial directives could be coming from the Pentagon, he speculated.

Surveillance of antiwar protesters by the National Guard bumps up against the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the military from taking part in domestic law enforcement. But this may change. Several weeks ago the Washington Post reported on the Pentagon's classified plans for guarding against and responding to a domestic terrorist attack, describing the changes as a "big shift for the military." Adm. Timothy Keating, head of the Northern Command, which coordinates military involvement in homeland security operations, discussed ways the National Guard might be used and, according to the Post, "left the door open to seeking an amendment of the Posse Comitatus Act."

Troubled by an increase in domestic spying, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in May against the FBI to force the release of files on numerous activists and groups in about ten states, charging that "the FBI and local police are engaging in intimidation based on political association and are improperly investigating law-abiding human rights and advocacy groups." The ACLU's request, which also asks for information about the practices and funding of the JTTFs (currently there are about 110), is a Who's Who of national and local advocates for well-known causes, including antiwar, environmental, labor, fair trade and human rights causes.

The few documents received to date shed light on the FBI's misuse of the JTTFs to engage in political surveillance. For example, FBI documents obtained by the Colorado ACLU reveal that in July 2004, FBI agents and members of the Denver Police Department, dressed in SWAT gear, questioned 21-year-old Sarah Bardwell, an American Friends Service Committee intern who was also active in Food Not Bombs, at her home "to conduct pretext interviews to gain general information." These documents, said Mark Silverstein, Colorado ACLU legal director, "confirm that the FBI was more interested in intimidation than in trying to gather information." In another example a student and two former students at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, who were planning to go to the Democratic convention last summer, were questioned by the FBI and subpoenaed by a grand jury. Although never charged with any crime, they were under twenty-four-hour FBI surveillance for almost a week afterward. "The subpoenas and surveillance were not to get information but to harass and intimidate them," said Denise Lieberman, former ACLU legal director in eastern Missouri. "It worked. It was very frightening."

This past November, several days after George W. Bush's election, an FBI agent and plainclothes officers from the Raleigh, North Carolina, police department came to the residence of Brad Goodnight, a 21-year-old student majoring in computer science and psychology at North Carolina State University. He went with them to police headquarters, where he was asked about specific friends, about his role in Campus Greens, Food Not Bombs and other organizations, and whether he recognized photos of people in the audience at a local punk rock concert. His interrogation was apparently related to an earlier protest rally near Republican headquarters, where vandalism had occurred and three people were arrested. Goodnight said he was told, "We have paid informers and treat them well." He was warned that if he didn't agree to cooperate he would face continued scrutiny. He refused. He had not committed any crime, was not charged with any offense and was soon released. Besides interrogating Goodnight, the FBI knocked on dorm-room doors, and campus police increased their presence at peace vigils, all of which "definitely had a chilling effect," said Elena Everett, a recent NCSU graduate and chair of the North Carolina Green Party. "People, especially international students, didn't feel comfortable speaking out anymore."

"Just about every university in the country" has some connection to the JTTFs, according to an FBI spokesman in Texas. At one end of the spectrum is Brown University, which receives advisories only in a "one-way relationship." At the other end are some dozen campuses where at least one university police officer is assigned on a full-time basis to the FBI, according to Christopher Blake, associate director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. The number may be much higher than a dozen, given that a survey of universities conducted by The Nation found that at about a third of some fifteen schools picked at random, an officer is assigned to work for the FBI. The officer's salary is paid by the university, and the FBI pays for overtime and expenses. Neither Blake nor FBI headquarters would name specific schools, but universities admitting such arrangements to The Nation include the University of Illinois, Champaign/Urbana; the University of Texas, Austin; the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and the University of Florida, Gainesville. Michigan State has three detectives assigned on a part-time basis. Rutgers refused to say whether it has campus cops serving as full-time FBI agents. Yale has a campus policeman who is assigned to the FBI--one of the few private universities with such an arrangement--but a Yale spokesperson refused to comment on the officer's duties.

Understandably, the FBI is secretive about the activities of its campus agents. "I had no idea what the officer was doing," admitted John Dauer, chief of the University of Toledo's police force, which, because of personnel needs, ended the FBI's involvement last year. At the UMass in Amherst the campus detective "does everything an FBI agent on the JTTF would do, including working on non-university-related cases," said an FBI official. In one case there involving the Internet that was unrelated to terrorism, the campus detective acted as a liaison with a California FBI office. At the University of Texas, "the FBI gives the campus police officer assignments that are mostly related to university activity," said Terry McMahan, interim chief of police. An FBI spokesperson in Texas said, "There is a constant flow of information between the FBI and the University of Texas police, and if a research facility were damaged by a Middle East individual, the campus police/FBI officer would be in the best position to investigate."

Having campus police serve as FBI agents abrogates the universities' longstanding privilege to police themselves and sets a dangerous precedent. A spokesperson from FBI headquarters said, "The purpose of having law enforcement agencies on college campuses is because of infrastructure and research facilities associated with the colleges."

Besides the National Guard and FBI activities against opponents of the war, a different kind of federal response happened to the family of Marine Cpl. Jorge Gonzalez, who died in Iraq in 2003. After his mother, Rosa Gonzalez, protested against the war, a man she considers her brother, a nearly twenty-year US resident who owned property here, was deported to Mexico. "I think there is a connection," she said. "I don't protest anymore. I'm scared."

"Back in the late 1960s and early '70s there were institutional checks and balances on the scope of investigations," said Pyle, the former investigator. "Now with the JTTFs' and military's swapping and fusion centers, a vast amount of undigested information is produced that is freely circulated." He adds, "If the old pattern follows, intelligence work will turn into covert operations that will involve all agencies."

"Unfortunately, there is little doubt that the Bush Administration has misappropriated the awesome power of the Justice Department to monitor and quash lawful critics of the war in Iraq," said Congressman John Conyers Jr., ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. He adds, "With the near total lack of Congressional Republican oversight of this Administration's conduct after September 11, we must turn to the courts. I support the ACLU's lawsuit."

The protection of American citizens from unwarranted surveillance and spying now squarely rests with independent groups like the ACLU, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

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