BUGS, TAPS AND INFILTRATORS: WHAT TO DO ABOUT
by Linda Lotz, American Friends Service Committee
Organizations involved in controversial issues -- particularly
those who encourage or assist members to commit civil disobedience
-- should be alert to the possibility of surveillance and
disruption by police or federal agencies.
During the last three decades, many individuals and
organizations were spied upon, wiretapped, their personal lives
dirupted in an effort to draw them away from their political
work, and their organizations infiltrated. Hundreds of thousands
of pages of evidence from agencies such as the FBI and CIA
were obtained by Congressional inquiries headed by Senator
Frank Church and Representative Otis Pike, others were obtained
through use of the Freedom of Information Act and as a
result of lawsuits seeking damages for First Amendment violations.
Despite the public outcry to these revelations, the
apparatus remains in place, and federal agencies have been given
increased powers by the Reagan Administration.
Good organizers should be acquainted with this sordid
part of American history, and with the signs that may indicate
their group is the target of an investigation.
HOWEVER, DO NOT LET PARANOIA immobilize you. The results
of paranoia and overraction to evidence of surveillance can be
just as disruptive to an organization as an actual infiltrator
or disruption campaign.
This document is a brief outline of what to look for
-- and what to do if you think your group is the subject of an
investigation. This is meant to suggest possible actions,
and is not intended to provide legal advice.
Possible evidence of government spying
Look for: Visits by police or federal agents
to politically involved individuals, landlords, employers, family
members or business associates. These visits may be to
ask for information, to encourage or create possibility of eviction
or termination of employment, or to create pressure for the person
to stop his or her political involvement. Uniformed
or plainclothes officers taking picktures of people entering your
office or participating in your activities. Just before and during
demonstrations and other public events, check the area
including windows and rooftops for photographers. (Credenitalling
press can help to separate the media from the spies.)
People who seem out of place. If they come to your office
or attend your events, greet them as potential members. Try to
determine if they are really interested in your issues
-- or just your members! People writing down license plate
numbers of cars and other vehicles in the vicinity of your meetings
Despite local legislation and several court orders
limiting policy spying activities, these investigatory practices
have been generally found to be legal unless significant
"chilling" of constitutional rights can be proved.
Electronic surveillance euqipment is now so sophisticated
that you should not be able to tell if your telephone converstaions
are being monitored. Clicks, whirrs, and other noises probably
indicate a problem in the telephone line or other equipment.
For example, the National Security Agency has the technology
to monitor microwae communications traffic, and to isolate all
calls to or from a particular line, or to listen for key
words that activate a recording device. Laser beams and "spike"
microphones can detect sound waves hitting walls and window
panes, and then transmit those waves for recording. In these
cases, there is little chance that the subject would be able to
find out about the surveillance.
Among the possible signs you may find are:
Hearing a tape recording of a conversation you, or someone else
in your home or office, have recently held. Hearing people
talking about your activities when you try to use the telephone.
Losing service several days before major events.
Government use of electronic surveillance is governed
by two laws, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act and
the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Warrants for
such surveillance can be obtained if there is evidence of a federal
crime, such as murder, drug trafficking, or crimes characteristic
of organized crime, or for the purpose of gathering foreign intelligence
information available within the U.S. In the latter case, an "agent
of a foreign power" can be defined as a representative
of a foreign government, from a faction or opposition group, or
foreign based political groups.
Because of traditional difficulties with the U.S. Postal
Service, some problems with mail delivery will occur, such as
a machine catching an end of an envelope and tearing it,
or a bag getting lost and delaying delivery.
However, a pattern of problems may occur because of
political intelligence gathering: Envelopes may have been
opened prior to reaching their destination; contents were removed
and/or switched with other mail. Remember that the glue on
envelopes doesn't work as well when volume or bulk mailings
are involved. Mail may arrive late, on a regular basis
different from others in your neighborhood. Mail may never
There are currently two kinds of surveillance permitted
with regards to mail: the mail cover, and opening of mail. The
simplest, and lest intrusive form is the "mail cover"
in which Postal employees simply list any information that can
be obtained from the envelope, or opening second, third or fourth
class mail. Opening of first class mail requires a warrant
unless it is believed to hold drugs or "ticks." More
leeway is given for opening first class international mail.
A common practice during the FBI's Counter- Intelligence
Program (COINTELPRO) was the use of surreptitious entries or "black
bag jobs." Bureau agents were given special training
in burglary, key reproduction, etc. for use in entering homes
and offices. In some cases, the key could be obtained from "loyal
American" landlords or building owners.
Typical indicators are: Files, including membership
and financial reports are rifled, copied or stolen. Items
of obvious financial value are left untouched. Equipment
vital to the organization may be broken or stolen, such as typewriters,
printing machinery, and computers. Signs of a political
motive are left, such as putting a membership list or a poster
from an important event in an obvious place.
Although warrantless domestic security searches are
in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and any evidence obtained
this way cannot be used in criminal proceedings, the Reagan
Administration and most recent Presidents (excepting Carter) have
asserted the inherent authority to conduct searches against
those viewed as agents of a foreign power.
Informers and Infiltrators
Information about an organization or individual can
also be obtained by placing an informer or infiltrator. This person
may be a police officer, employee of a federal agency,
someone who has been charged or convicted of criminal activity
and has agreed to "help" instead of serve time, or anyone
from the public.
Once someone joins an organization for the purposes
of gathering information, the line between data gathering and
participation blurs. Two types of infiltrators result --
someone who is under "deep cover" and adapts to the
lifestyle of the people they are infiltrating. These people may
maintain their cover for many years, and an organization
may never know whom these people are. Agents "provocateur"
are more visible, because they will deliberately attempt
to disrupt or lead the group into illegal activites. They often
become involved just as an event or crisis is occurring, and leave
town or drop out after the organizing slows down.
An agent may: Volunteer for tasks which provide
access to important meetings and papers such as financial records,
membership lists, minutes and confidential files. Not
follow through or complete tasks, or else does them poorly despite
an obvious ability to do good work. Cause problems for
a group such as committing it to activities or expenses wihtout
following proper channels; urge a group to plan activities that
divide group unity. Seem to create or be in the
middle of personal or political difference that slow the work
of the group. Seek the public spotlight, in the name of
your group, and then make comments or present an image different
from the rest of the group. Urge the use of violence or
breaking the law, and provide information and resources to enable
such ventures. Have no obvious source of income over a
period of time, or have more money available than his or her job
should pay. Charge other people with being agents, (a
process called snitch-jackets), thereby diverting attention from
him or herself, and draining the group's energy from other
THESE ARE NOT THE ONLY SIGNS, NOR IS A PERSON WHO FITS
SEVERAL OF THESE CATEGORIES NECESSARILY AN AGENT. BE EXTREMELY
CAUTIONS AND DO NOT CALL ANOTHER PERSON AN AGENT WITHOUT
HAVEING SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE.
Courts have consistently found that an invividual who
provides information, even if it is incriminating, to an informer
has not had his or her Constitutional rights violated.
This includes the use of tape recorders or electronic transmitters
Lawsuits in Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere, alleging
infiltration of lawful political groups have resulted in court
orders limiting the use of police informers and infiltrators.
However, this does not affect activities of federal agencies.
If you find evidence of surveillance: Hold a meeting
to discuss spying and harassment Determine if any of your
members have experienced any harassment or noticed any surveillance
activities that appear to be directed at the organization's
activities. Carefully record all the details of these and
see if any patterns develop. Review past suspicious activities
or difficulties in your group. Has one or several people been
involved in many of these events? List other possible "evidence"
of infiltration. Develop internal policy on how the group
should respond to any possible surveillance or suspicious actions.
Decide who should be the contact person(s), what information
should be recorded, what process to follow during any event or
demonstration if disruption tactics are used. Consider
holding a public meeting to discuss spying in your community and
around the country. Schedule a speaker or film discussing political
surveillance. Make sure to protect important documents
or computer disks, by keeping a second copy in a separate, secret
location. Use fireproof, locked cabinets if possible.
Implement a sign-in policy for your office and/or meetings.
This is helpful for your organizing, developing a mailing list,
and can provide evidence that an infiltrator or informer
was at your meeting.
Appoint a contact for spying concerns
This contact person or committee should implement the
policy developed above and should be given to authority to act,
to get others to respond should any problems occur.
The contact should: Seek someone familiar with
surveillance history and law, such as the local chapter of the
National Lawyers Guild, the American Civil Liberties Union, the
National Conference of Black Lawyers or the American Friends
Service Committee. Brief them about your evidence and suspicions.
They will be able to make suggestions about actions to
take, as well as organizing and legal contacts. Maintain
a file of all suspected or confirmed experiences of surveillance
and disruption. Include: date, place, time, who was present, a
complete descriptiong of everything that happened, and
any comments explaining the context of the event or showing what
impact the event had on the individual or organization.
If this is put in deposition form and signed, it can be used as
evidence in court. Under the Freedom of Information Act
and the Privacy act, request any files on the organization from
federal agencies such as the FBI, CIA, Immigration and
Naturalization, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, etc.
File similar requests with local and state law enforcement agencies,
if your state freedom of information act applies.
Prepare for major demonstrations and events
Plan ahead; brief your legal workers on appropriate state and
federal statutes on police and federal official spying. Discuss
whether photographing with still or video cameras is anticipated
and decide if you want to challenge it. If you anticipate
surveillance, brief reporters who are expected to cover the event,
and provide them with materials about past surveillance by your
city's police in the past, and/or against other activitists
throughout the country. Tell the participants when surveillance
is anticipated and discuss what the group's response will be.
Also, decide how to handle provacateurs, police violence,
etc. and incorporate this into any affinity group, marshall or
During the event: Carefully monitor the crowd,
looking for surveillance or possible disruption tactics. Photograph
any suspicious or questionable activities. Approach police
officer(s) seen engaging in qyuestionable activities. Consider
having a legal worker and/or press person monitor their actions.
If you suspect someone is an infiltrator: Try to
obtain information about his or her background: where s/he attended
high school and college; place of employment, and other pieces
of history. Attempt to verify this information.
Check public records which include employment; this can include
voter registation, mortgages or other debt filings, etc.
Check listings of police academy graduates, if available.
Once you obtain evidence that someone is an infiltrator:
Confront him or her in a protected setting, such as a
small meeting with several other key members of your group (and
an attorney if available). Present the evidence and ask
for the person's response. You should plan how to inform
your members about the infiltration, gathering information about
what the person did while a part of the group and determining
any additional impact s/he may have had. You should consider
contacting the press with evidence of the infiltration.
If you can only gather circumstantial evidence, but
are concerned that the person is disrupting the group:
Hold a strategy session with key leadership as to how to handle
the troublesome person. Confront the troublemaker, and
lay out why the person is disrupting the organization. Set guidelines
for further involvement and carefully monitor the person's
activities. If the problems continue, consider asking the person
to leave the organization. If sufficient evidence is then
gathered which indicates s/he is an infiltrator, confront the
person with the information in front of witnesses and carefully
Request an investigation or make a formal complaint
Report telephone difficulties to your local and long distance
carriers. Ask for a check on the lines to assure that the equipment
is working properly. Ask them to do a sweep/check to see
if any wiretap equipment is attached (Sometimes repair staff can
be very helpful in this way.) If you can afford it, request
a sweep of your phone and office or home form a private security
firm. Remember this will only be good at the time that the sweep
is done. File a formal complaint with the U.S. Postal
Service, specifying the problems you have been experiencing, specific
dates, and other details. If mail has failed to arrive,
ask the Post Office to trace the envelope or package.
Request a formal inquiry by the police, if you have been the subject
of surveillance or infiltration. Describe any offending actions
by police officers and ask a variety of questions. If an
activity was photographed, ask what will be done with the pictures.
Set a time when you expect a reply from the police chief.
Inform members of the City Council and the press of your request.
If you are not pleased with the results of the police
chief's reply, file a complaint with the Police Board or other
adminstrative body. Demand a full investigation. Work with
investigators to insure that all witnesses are contacted. Monitor
the investigation and respond publicly to the conclusions. Initiate
a lawsuit if applicable federal or local statues have been
Before embarking on a lawsuit, remember that most suits
take many years to complete and require tremendous amounts of
organizers' and legal workers' energy and money.
Always notify the press when you have a good story
Keep interested reporters updated on any new developments.
They may be aware of other police abuses, or be able to obtain
further evidence of police practices.
Press coverage of spying activities is very important,
because publicity conscious politicians and police chiefs will
be held accountable for questionable practices.
Prepared by: Linda Lotz American Friends Service Committee
980 North Fair Oaks Avenue Pasadena, CA 91103