FBI Memo Reveals Spying on Antiwar Movement

Revolutionary Worker #1222, December 14, 2003, posted at rwor.org

A recent FBI memo--sent to thousands of local police agencies and marked "not to be disseminated beyond law enforcement circles"--has made its way into daylight. The memo was issued shortly before the protests on October 25 in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. And the memo calls on local police to help the FBI spy on the protesters--under the pretext of targeting "terrorism."

The memo declares, "While the FBI possess no information indicating that violent or terrorist activities are being planned as part of these [October antiwar] protests, the possibility exists that elements of the activist community may attempt to engage in violent, destructive, or disruptive acts." Using the language of the Bush administration's color-coded "terrorism" alerts, the FBI headlines its memo "Threat Level: Yellow (Elevated)." The memo says the local police should "report any potentially illegal acts to the nearest FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force."

And what does the FBI consider as "potentially illegal acts" that should be reported? Among the activities that the memo warns about are that protesters "use the Internet to recruit, raise funds, and coordinate activities"; that they "make use of training camps to rehearse tactics and counter-strategies"; and that they use "cell phones or radios to coordinate activities or to update colleagues about ongoing events" during demonstrations.

In places the FBI memo reads like an advisory to local police on how to disrupt people's ability to mount effective protest. The memo says, "If a demonstration is going to take place in a secure facility, activists may seek to gain access to the site using false documentation. Surveillance of sites prior to demonstrations can allow activists to identify locating of command post and law enforcement personnel in order to plan effective countermeasures."

The FBI doesn't just target the militant forces within the movement. The memo warns: "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 memo is an example of the twisted logic that the government has been increasingly using in the post-9/11 era. According to this logic, the very fact that protesters take any steps to protect themselves from police assaults, spying, and arrests is proof that they are "guilty" of some crime and even potentially "terrorist" threats. The memo says, "Extremists may be prepared to defend themselves against law enforcement during the course of a demonstration. 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." Sunglasses and other face coverings have now become a mark of "extremism," under the FBI's definition.

The memo warns that demonstrators may attempt to document "potential cases of police brutality." It describes the videotaping of police actions by protesters as an example of "intimidation techniques." The FBI's list of "potentially illlegal acts" even includes efforts to raise money or to organize protests in defense of those arrested: "Post-demonstration activities can include fundraising in support of the legal defense of accused protestors and demonstrations of solidarity calling for the release of the accused."

There was broad outrage when the memo's existence became known following a report in the New York Times in November. Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights said, "Routine spying on dissidents is a sign of a police state, and unless we stop this administration's cavalier attitude toward fundamental rights we face a serious threat to our democracy." The ACLU-- which posted the FBI memo on its website--said, "It is troubling that the FBI is advocating spying on peaceful protestors, but even protestors who engage in civil disobedience or other disruptive acts should not be treated like potential terrorists."

The government's use of "war on terrorism" as a pretext to target dissent started well before the 9/11 attacks--especially after the 1999 anti-globalization protests that stopped the WTO meeting in Seattle. In Senate testimony in May 2001, FBI head Freeh made clear that forces who engage in civil disobedience and other forms of protests were being looked at as "potential terrorists." This use of "anti-terrorism" as cover for attacks on protesters took a major leap after 9/11. The USA Patriot Act has given the government dangerous new powers to suppress opposition. Last year Attorney General John Ashcroft also reversed official restrictions on domestic spying that had been in effect since the 1970s and 1980s and instituted new guidelines giving FBI agents much wider latitude in spying on groups and individuals.

The FBI claimed that its memo was not "for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment." They said that the new Ashcroft guidelines on political investigations are meant to apply only for "the purpose of detecting or preventing terrorist activities." But who determines what are possible "terrorist activities"? The FBI and others in this government, of course. And what the FBI memo reveals is that the government has basically labeled the whole movement against U.S. wars and occupations as potentially "criminal" and "terrorist."