Tuesday, May 19, 2009

More Informants, More Fear

On May 17, the Des Moines Register reported that the FBI planted an informant in an Iowa City "anarchist collective" planning to "disrupt the Republican convention." Those advocating undercover surveillance say the government should spy upon political activists to prevent future crime. But the protective potential of such efforts is vastly outweighed by the negative effect on organizing for social change.

The FBI and Ramsey County Sheriff's office both planted informants in Iowa City prior to the 2008 RNC in St. Paul. The FBI did not notify local authorities that it had done so, according to Police Chief Samuel Hargadine. Activists suspect that the FBI informer was a young man from Michigan named "Jason" who claimed he was a U.S. military conscientious objector. According to the Des Moines Register, "Jason" told people he had been discharged from the Air Force after he objected to being deployed to Iraq. He later admitted that he provided information to the FBI in exchange for money.

Why was the FBI watching a small group of peace activists and supposed anarchists in Iowa? Russell Porter, the director of the Iowa Department of Public Safety's Intelligence Bureau (and a leader in the national development of fusion centers), says that when undercover investigations are done well, "it keeps the community safe." Porter also emphasized that "central to it is ensuring that we adhere and follow a solemn obligation to protect those principles enumerated in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution."

Perhaps Porter should reflect on the essential meaning of those texts, as undercover surveillance challenges the First and Fourth amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Those are the ones about freedom of speech and assembly, and freedom from unreasonable search and seizures. Most importantly, the collection of political intelligence messes with the heart of the democratic process by instilling fear.

Here, the FBI informant filed numerous reports with his handler, Special Agent Thomas Reinwart of Cedar Rapids. His reports contained individuals' interests, cell phone numbers, political beliefs, and physical descriptions. Ramsey County's Sheriff claims that such record-keeping was justified because "anarchists" planned to block roads and blow bus tires. But 25 members of Iowa City activist groups participated in the St. Paul demonstrations and only one was arrested -- and those charges were subsequently dropped. In addition, the FBI targeted the Iowa group solely because of its political stripes. If the group made a conscious decision not to commit civil disobedience, does anyone believe that the FBI would have ended surveillance? Now that none of these people broke the law, will their files be purged from government databases?

The stream of revelations of undercover surveillance flowing from St. Paul keeps bringing me back to Frank Donner's analysis of American intelligence. In his classic Age of Surveillance, civil rights attorney Donner explained how informers act as "a hostile presence to instill fear." The very act of gathering all this data on individual activists represses dissent and hamstrings our ability to work for social change:
The mere existence of such files, no matter how limited their access, inspires fear. They 'document' the intelligence thesis that dissent is a form of political original sin, permanent, incurable, and contagious, and impose on the political life of the individual a 'record' he [or she] cannot change; they make him [or her] a subject, tied forever to political views and associations he or she may have long since abandoned...

A secret political file serves up a banquet of fears. Do "they" have a file on me? What could "they" possibly have found out about my past? Is there any derogatory information in my record? And these fears are fueled by periodic disclosures that the Bureau keeps files on numberless individuals who are not remotely threatening to any legitimate government interest.

To these subjective sources of criticism must be added a fairly widespread recognition that the entire political filing cycle -- recording, dissemination, accumulation, and retention -- is the hallmark and symbol of a police state. (Age of Surveillance, p. 172)
Amory Starr and Luis Fernandez bring this fear to life in their compelling contemporary research on the impact of surveillance.

After 1999's Battle in Seattle during the World Trade Organization meeting, the national police have sought to ensure that "people's power" doesn't spill into the streets. In subsequent opportunities for mass demonstrations, the police response has been enormous and repressive, effectively splintering parts of a growing movement. After 9/11, the government stretched the mission of preventing violent terrorism to prevent "civil disturbances" and property damage. The recent popularity of "Tea Party" protests makes this crackdown on civil disobedience even more unnerving. The 1773 Boston Tea Party was not merely a symbolic protest; protestors destroyed 10,000 pounds worth of tea -- valued at several hundred thousands of dollars today.

If we continue to treat protestors like terrorists, we hamper the ability of people to be agents for change. As activists reach to mobilize foreclosure victims, laid off workers, and others, how many will be dissuaded from attending meetings for fear of landing on a government watch list, or attending a rally out of fear of being unintentionally swept up in a mass arrest?

It's time to put an end to political intelligence gathering and direct domestic security resources toward real, high-intensity, large-scale threats.