With Us, or Watched By Us - FBI Spies on Protest Groups 
Metroland, Dec 18, 2003
y Glenn Weiser

Local activists react to recent memo showing the FBI slipping back into some old, sneaky habits. 

Uncle Sam now has an eye for protester guys, according to a confidential FBI memo recently leaked to The New York Times. The memo, sent to 15,000 local police forces around the nation, details how the federal government has been monitoring antiwar and antiglobalization rallies and is trying to collect personal information on protesters. It instructs police forces to spy on these events and report unlawful actions by demonstrators to the bureau’s counterterrorism agents.

Labeled “Law Enforcement Sensitive,” the Oct. 15 memo, which can be downloaded in PDF format at the bottom of this page, was drafted in advance of the antiwar demonstrations that occurred on Oct. 25 in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. In it the FBI admits it has no knowledge of any planned disturbances at the rallies, but warns, “the possibility exists that elements of the activist community may attempt to engage in violent, destructive, or disruptive acts.” The document also appears to equate civil disobedience with terrorism in directing law enforcement agencies to “report any potentially illegal acts to the nearest FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.”

“This memo confirms our fear that the USA Patriot Act and other anti- terrorism measures instituted by the administration step way over the line, infringing upon our fundamental free speech rights. Beware everyone, Big Brother really is watching you!” said Melanie Trimble, the executive director of the Capital Region chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The memo lists sit-ins, marches and banners as traditional forms of protest, and vandalism, human chains, makeshift barricades, trespassing and physical harassment of delegates as more aggressive methods. In an ominous passage, it then says, “Even the more peaceful techniques can create a climate of disorder, block access to a site, draw large numbers of police officers to a location in order to weaken security at another location, obstruct traffic, and possibly intimidate people from attending the events being protested.”

The bureau wants to know who these protestors are, the memo reveals. “After demonstrations, activists are usually reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement officials,” it says. “They seldom carry any identification papers and often refuse to divulge any information about themselves or other protesters.”

The document singles out the use of training camps, the Internet, cell phones and radios as protest methods to be watched. “It is interesting and bears watching that the memo singles out new technologies: Internet, cell phones; in truth these have become incredible and exponentially empowering tools for fostering informed, connected participatory citizenship,” said Maureen Aumand, a local activist affiliated with Women Against War.

Critics have charged that the memo presages a return to the FBI’s abuses of the 1960s and 1970s, when director J. Edgar Hoover had dissenters like Martin Luther King placed under surveillance. Restrictions preventing the bureau from investigating domestic political groups were later imposed, but last year Attorney General John Aschcroft relaxed them significantly as part of the government’s antiterrorism campaign.

Speaking on ABC’s This Week on Nov. 23, the day The New York Times broke the story, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said of the memo, “This reminds me of the old Nixon times and the enemies list. . . . That, I think, is a fundamental flaw of this administration. It is absolutely outrageous in terms of what this country is about. How could we be fighting abroad to defend our freedoms and diminishing those freedoms here at home?”

Lawrence Wittner, a University at Albany history professor who studies popular protest movements and the author of Toward Nuclear Abolition, echoed Kennedy, remarking, “Unfortunately, the FBI seems to have fallen back upon its discredited policy of spying on law-abiding Americans and confusing nonviolent dissent with terrorist activity.”

FBI spokesman Whitney Blake refused to comment on the memo, instead referring to a statement on the bureau’s Web site, which says in part, “The FBI is committed to protecting the constitutional rights of all Americans, including those who oppose current policies of the government. In order to do so, we must make law enforcement aware of the tactics of those who wish to impinge on those rights by violently disrupting otherwise peaceful marches and assemblies.”

Asked if he would be deterred from taking part in future antiwar events knowing the FBI or local police may be watching, Paul Tick, founder of Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace, said he would not. He added, “Maybe the question of surveillance needs to be looked at from this overall picture—what is happening to our country under the Bush administration? Hopefully, more than ever, people will realize that their involvement is the only thing that can, in fact, save our democracy.”

Click here to download the FBI memo.

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          ©2003 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved

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