A New Federal War on Dissent?
by James Bovard
The Future of Freedom Foundation
online, November 16, 2005
On October 15, 2003, the FBI sent Intelligence
Bulletin #89 to 17,000 local and state law-enforcement agencies
around the country. The bulletin warned of pending marches in
Washington and San Francisco against Bush's Iraq policy and stated,
While the FBI possesses no information
indicating that violent or terrorist activities are being planned
as part of these protests, the possibility exists that elements
of the activist community may attempt to engage in violent, destructive,
or disruptive acts.
The FBI catalogued some of the new threats
to public safety:
Several effective and innovative strategies
are commonly used by protesters prior to, during, and after demonstrations....
Protesters often use the internet to recruit, raise funds, and
coordinate their activities prior to demonstrations. Activists
may also make use of training camps to rehearse tactics and counter-strategies
for dealing with the police.
Saying that dissenters are attending a
"training camp" is intended to suggest that they are
akin to the killers who attended Afghan terrorist training camps.
And the fact that protesters use the Internet is as irrelevant
as that earlier generations of protesters used the U.S. mail.
Since FBI computers are far behind the technology curve, FBI analysts
may be unaware that Internet use is pervasive among Americans
of all political stripes.
After warning about the danger that "extremist
elements" could engage in "vandalism," "trespassing,"
and "the formation of human chains," the FBI cast suspicion
on almost anyone attending a protest:
Even the more peaceful techniques can
create a climate of disorder, block access to a site, draw large
numbers of police officers to a specific location in order to
weaken security at other locations, obstruct traffic, and possibly
intimidate people from attending the events being protested.
The FBI promulgated the doctrine of collective
guilt for all demonstrators - as if anyone on the streets in the
same city as a masked anarchist troublemaker is as guilty as the
person who throws the brick through a Starbucks window.
The confidential FBI intelligence bulletin
revealed to the nation's law officers that protesters might use
"media equipment (video cameras, photographic equipment,
audio tape recorders, microphones, and computer and radio equipment)
... for documenting potential cases of police brutality and for
distribution of information over the internet." Apparently,
the FBI sees videotaping an arrest as an illicit infringement
on a police officer's creativity.
The FBI also portrayed practically any
defensive measures by demonstrators as highly suspicious: "Extremists
may be prepared to defend themselves against law enforcement officials
during the course of a demonstration." The FBI offered a
list of tell-tale signs of subversion:
Masks (gas masks, goggles, scarves, scuba masks, filter masks,
and sunglasses) can serve to minimize the effects of tear gas
and pepper spray as well as obscure one's identity. Extremists
may also employ ... body protection equipment (layered clothing,
hard hats and helmets, sporting equipment, life jackets, etc.)
to protect themselves during marches.
Implying that wearing "layered clothing"
is an unfair or illicit tactic is bizarre - as if anything that
blunts the impact of a policeman's baton should be considered
aiding and abetting al-Qaeda. The FBI also implied that any self-defense
measures should be considered a provocation. And does the FBI
really think that wearing sunglasses is a sign that a person is
conspiring to avoid the effects of tear gas?
The intelligence bulletin concluded,
Law enforcement agencies should be alert
to these possible indicators of protest activity and report
any potentially illegal acts to the nearest FBI Joint Terrorism
If local police take the hint and start
pouring in information, the task force could build a "Total
Information Awareness"-like database on anti-war groups and
A policy of domestic spying?
The FBI intelligence bulletin was first
publicly disclosed by the New York Times's Eric Lichtblau
on November 23, 2003. The Times added that the FBI intelligence
bulletin "appears to offer the first corroboration of a coordinated,
nationwide effort to collect intelligence regarding demonstrations."
Michael Ratner, president of the Center
for Constitutional Rights, observed,
Routine spying on dissidents is a sign
of a police state, and unless we stop this administration's cavalier
attitude towards fundamental rights we face a serious threat to
Herman Schwartz, a constitutional law
professor at American University, commented,
If you go around telling people, "We're
going to ferret out information on demonstrations," that
deters people. People don't want their names and pictures in FBI
An FBI official who insisted on anonymity
told the New York Times,
We're not concerned with individuals
who are exercising their constitutional rights. But it's obvious
that there are individuals capable of violence at these events.
The "capable of violence" standard
justifies surveillance of almost anyone except quadriplegics strapped
into wheelchairs. The FBI in the late 1960s and early 1970s justified
surveillance of Women's Lib meetings - including keeping detailed
records of each attendee's sexual grievances - on the basis of
the fear that libbers might become violent. Given the FBI's expansive
definition of "potential violence" in the past, this
net can snare almost any group or individual who falls into official
In response to the Times article,
the FBI sent a letter to the editor, which it publicly released
along with the confidential intelligence bulletin. The FBI stated,
The bulletin is not focused on political
protesters or others who exercise their first amendment rights
to protest the policies of the government, but simply cites the
fact that anarchists and others have used violent tactics to disrupt
otherwise peaceful demonstrations.... The bulletin does not suggest
that state and local law enforcement should collect information
on peaceful demonstrators.
But this sanitized interpretation is at
odds with the intelligence bulletin's specific request that local
law enforcement watch for "possible indicators of protest
activity" and report to the FBI "potentially illegal
acts." And the FBI's reference to "extremists"
who wear "layered clothing" implies that most wintertime
protesters north of the Mason-Dixon Line should be on the target
There are other warning signs that the
FBI is off the leash. In February 2004, the FBI's Joint Terrorism
Task Force issued subpoenas for information on an anti-war meeting
held at the Des Moines, Iowa, campus of Drake University. The
subpoena demanded "all records of Drake University campus
security reflecting any observations made of the November 15,
2003, meeting, including any records of persons in charge or control
of the meeting, and any records of attendees."
The feds also subpoenaed four anti-war
activists, including the leader of the Catholic Peace Ministry,
to compel them to testify before a grand jury. After controversy
arose over the subpoenas, the feds issued a new subpoena muzzling
Drake University officials from making any public comments about
the prior subpoenas. The feds also demanded "information
about leaders of the National Lawyer Guild's Drake University
chapter, the location of NLG's local offices, its membership rolls,
and any annual reports issued since 2002." The president
of the guild, Michael Ayers, complained, "The law is clear
that the use of the grand jury to investigate protected political
activities or to intimidate protesters exceeds its authority."
According to several experts, this was
the first time in decades that the feds had issued such a subpoena
to a university. The feds lost control of the spin on the investigation
and, after widespread criticism, canceled the Drake University
subpoenas. There is no way to know how many other subpoenas may
have been quietly complied with by colleges or other organizations
that eschewed a public confrontation with the feds.
The following week, two U.S. Army Intelligence
agents descended upon the University of Texas law school in Austin.
They entered the office of the Journal of Women and the Law
and demanded that the editors turn over a roster of the people
who attended a recent conference on Islam and women. The editors
denied having a list; the behavior of one agent was described
The agents then demanded contact information
for the student who organized the conference, Sahar Aziz. University
of Texas law professor Douglas Laycock commented,
We certainly hope that the Army doesn't
believe that attending a conference on Islamic law or Islam and
women is itself ground for investigation.
Though the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878
prohibits the use of the military for domestic law enforcement,
the Bush administration is successfully pushing to have the U.S.
military become more involved in domestic snooping.
It took more than a decade after the
first big anti-war protests in the 1960s before Americans learned
how far the FBI had gone to suppress and subvert public opposition
to the Vietnam War. There have been no congressional hearings
spurred as a result of FBI Intelligence Bulletin #89 - despite
the FBI's stark animosity to free speech therein.
Is the FBI now considering a similar
order to field offices as the one it sent in 1968, telling them
to gather information illustrating the "scurrilous and depraved
nature of many of the characters, activities, habits, and living
conditions representative of New Left adherents" - but this
time focused on those who oppose Bush's Brave New World?
Since the FBI admits surveilling anti-war
groups and urging local police to send in information on protesters,
how far might the feds already be going? Is the FBI following
the standard that former Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly
proclaimed in December 2001 - presuming that those who invoke
"phantoms of lost liberty" are giving "ammunition
to America's enemies"? Unfortunately, because of the Bush
administration's secrecy policy, Americans cannot know how far
the feds have already gone to suppress dissent.
James Bovard is author of The Bush Betrayal
as well as Lost Rights (1994) and Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling
Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil (Palgrave-Macmillan,
September 2003) and serves as a policy advisor for The Future
of Freedom Foundation. Send him email.
This article originally appeared in the
August 2005 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or
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