FBI Raids on Political Activists

In late September, the FBI raided six homes of peace activists in Minneapolis and Chicago, as well as the Minneapolis office of an anti-war group. Agents kicked down doors with guns drawn, then proceeded to smash furniture and seize computers, documents, phones, and other material without making any arrests.


The raids took place just a few days after a report was released from the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice that examined 8,000 pages of documents from 2001 to 2006 and interviewed dozens of FBI agents. The report blasted the FBI for spying on anti-war activists, animal rights groups, and environmentalists, calling them improper "terror" investigations "unreasonable and inconsistent with FBI policy." Among those targeted were the anti-war Thomas Merton Center, the Quakers, Catholic Worker, Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and an individual Quaker peace activist. According to the Inspector General, there was "little or no basis" for the investigations.


Another report found that the FBI used lies and tricks to illegally obtain thousands of records, then issued after-the-fact approvals in an attempt to cover them up. Released in January of this year, the report was the result of a 2007 Justice Department investigation covering similar matters. The Inspector General focused on the FBI's unlawful misuse of the already unconstitutional informal requests known as "exigent letters" to demand information. The DOJ report described a "complete breakdown" of procedures within the FBI. According to the report, the "FBI broke laws for years in phone record searches." Agents repeatedly and knowingly violated the law by invoking nonexistent "terror emergencies" to get access to information they were not authorized to have.


An additional Inspector General report found that hundreds of FBI employees had cheated on exams related to the 2008 guidelines that FBI employees must follow when conducting domestic investigations surveillance. They had consulted with others while taking the exam, even though that was forbidden. They had used or distributed answer sheets or study guides that provided test answers. Still others exploited a computer flaw that revealed the answers.


These reports don't even cover all the incidences of domestic surveillance of civic activists. Former FBI special agent and whistleblower Coleen Rowley reported that "in 2008, we found out through a Freedom of Information request that there are 300 pages of…agents trailing a group of students in Iowa City to parks, libraries, bars, restaurants." The documents requested by David Goodner, a former member of the University of Iowa's Antiwar Committee, under the Freedom of Information Act, show that the investigation into activities of peace groups in Iowa City involved staking out homes, secretly photographing and videotaping members, digging through garbage, and even planting a mole to spy on the activists. Known as the Wild Rose Rebellion, the protesters were described by the FBI as an "anarchist collective." In an interview with the Des Moines Register, the FBI defended its actions by alleging that certain people were possibly going to engage in criminal activities to disrupt the national conventions of one or both major political parties. The group's actual plans were to help organize non-violent civil disobedience, such as street blockades, at the 2008 Republican Convention.


Pennsylvania awarded a $125,000 no-bid contract to an Israeli-American consulting firm called the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, which spied on peace groups, citizen activists, civic groups, and critics of Governor Rendell's administration. The project was supposed to protect Pennsylvania citizens by gathering intelligence on potential terrorist threats, but the private contractor, hired by the state's Department of Homeland Security, fed information to state officials about the activities of religious groups, education advocates, BP protesters, anti-tax protesters, and just about anybody who criticized state government.


In Maryland, the Homeland Security and Intelligence Division of the Maryland State Police conducted undercover operations to repeatedly spy on peace activists and anti-death penalty groups. The Maryland State Police classified 53 nonviolent activists as terrorists and entered their names and personal information into state and federal databases that track terrorism suspects, the state police chief acknowledged in 2008. In 2009, the state police admitted to far more extensive surveillance with records showing that troopers monitored—and labeled as terrorists—activists protesting weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin. They spied on two pacifist Catholic nuns from Baltimore, CODE PINK, and the DC Anti-War Network, which was inaccurately designated a white supremacist group. The surveillance program became public because of documents released during a trespassing trial for peace activist Max Obuszewski, the nuns, and another activist arrested during an anti-war rally at the National Security Agency.


This type of surveillance by the FBI, NORTHCOM, and state and local police has also been occurring in many other parts of the country, including Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington.


The FBI has a long history of abusing its authority. This escalation of domestic surveillance of U.S. citizens began under President Bush and has continued under President Obama.


The escalation of wars abroad by the Obama administration is moving forward alongside the escalation of infringement of constitutional rights against anti-war activists (and others) at home, whose only "weapons" are leaflets, newsletters, and nonviolent demonstrations. Ironically, the groups targeted in the most recent raids in Illinois and Minnesota endorsed and supported the election of President Obama. For example, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization's "Political Report" noted, "Obama's election represents a rejection of the Bush administration policies and a desire amongst the people for a progressive agenda from the government."


Now that the Obama administration is moving forward with Bush-era policies that target anti-war political dissent at the same time that more Americans oppose Obama's wars, steps are urgently needed to protect the basic constitutional rights of peace activists and others.


Kevin Zeese is executive director of Voters for Peace (www.VotersForPeace.us).