To the Extreme

FBI testimony provokes fear of new Cointelpro

by Hank Hoffman

In These Times magazine, October 2001


Is the FBI back in the business of trying to squelch political dissent? An obscure paragraph in congressional testimony this past spring by departing FBI Director Louis Freeh has fanned fears that the agency is planning a surveillance and disruption effort against antiglobalization groups similar to Cointelpro, which focused on the antiwar and Black Power movements in the '60s and '70s.

Freeh delivered his testimony on the "Threat of Terrorism to the United States" before the Senate Appropriations committee on May 10. In the section on "domestic terrorism," Freeh identified "rightwing extremist groups," such as the World Church of the Creator and Aryan Nation, as "representing a continuing terrorism threat." One of the two paragraphs dealing with "special-interest extremists" focused on the eco-sabotage of the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front. In contrast, extreme anti-abortion groups, with their record of murder and clinic bombings, merited only a passing mention.

But it was the final paragraph in Freeh's assessment of "left-wing extremist groups" that raised eyebrows among antiglobalization activists: "Anarchist and extremist socialist groups-many of which, such as the Workers World Party, Reclaim the Streets and Carnival Against Capitalism-have an international presence and, at times, also represent a potential threat in the United States," Freeh said. "For example, anarchists, operating individually and in groups, caused much of the damage during the 1999 World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Seattle."

"These are extremely dangerous and inappropriate comments," says Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, cofounder of the Washington-based Claim the Streets rally in Naperville, Illinois.

Partnership for Civil Justice. Verheyden-Hilliard is the lead attorney on a lawsuit against the FBI and other police agencies for civil rights violations during the April 2000 protests at the Washington meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Noting that Freeh's remarks were made in the context of an appropriations hearing, she says that he "may be trying to legitimate funding for a government-sponsored war against the social justice movement."

Freeh's comments do provoke serious concerns. No justification is offered for the naming of Workers World Party, a Marxist group, and Reclaim the Streets, a network founded in London in 1995 that merges protests and raves, as representing potential threats. Freeh seemingly criminalizes all anarchists based on vandalism during the Seattle WTO protests. "By demonizing this movement and suggesting these folks pose a threat," says Verheyden-Hilliard, "they justify declaring some form of martial law [during large demonstrations]."

Verheyden-Hilliard notes that protests in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington have been met with excessive police response: illegal arrests, intrusive surveillance, pepper spray and the employment of agents provocateur. Washington police traveled to Philadelphia, Quebec and Genoa to observe protests, while local and state police are cooperating with the FBI on "joint anti-terrorism task forces." She adds: "It appears there's been substantial funding, sending people all around the country."

According to Jon Weiss of New York Reclaim the Streets, activists' initial response to Freeh's testimony was fear "because the phrase 'domestic terrorism' is usually just a packaging tool for the mass suspension of civil liberties."

Weiss suspects the FBI cribbed the terrorist tag from Scotland Yard, based on actions that devolved into riots. Reclaim the Streets' actions in Britain had been nonviolent since the network's founding in 1995, but that changed on June 18, 1999. As part of an international "global street party" to protest the G8 meeting in Cologne, Germany, 10,000 gathered in London's financial district. What started as a street party ended in the trashing of several businesses, including a McDonald's and a bank.

Chuck Munson, an anarchist and coeditor of Alternative Press Review, says the feds are grasping at "broad terms to tar and feather" the movement and dismisses as "demonization" the "insinuation that all anarchists are violent." The real violence, Munson argues, is perpetrated by the police. "They're the ones who bring guns, bullets, gas, dogs and water cannons to protests," he says, "and they use them."

FBI spokesman Steven Berry would not elaborate on Freeh's reasons for targeting anarchists, Workers World and Reclaim the Streets beyond drawing attention to Seattle. But their inclusion wasn't random. "There are a lot of groups in the anti-globalization movement who have exhibited some potential to commit a terrorist incident," Berry insists. Asked whether these groups or others are under investigation or subject to counterintelligence operations, Berry says, "We don't comment on specific investigations." Berry denies that Freeh's comments were a politically motivated smear. "We recognize that every group has the right to assemble, the right to meet, has the right to exist no matter how abhorrent their message is," Berry says. "The FBI only gets involved when there is a violation of federal law."

Says Weiss, "If blocking a road or having a party constitutes a terrorist act these days, I suppose we're guilty. The FBI is trying to get their mind around the concept that there is a global democracy movement, and they don't quite understand it yet."

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