Friday, May 22, 2009

Provocation Masquerading as Anti-Terror Policy?

A word of advice to activists and people praying at mosques.  If a guy offers you a free stinger missile, he's probably an informer.  If he offers you free IEDs, he's probably an informer. If he asks you to pledge an oath to his foreign terrorist organization, he's also probably a government spy.

On May 20, 2009, the FBI arrested four Newburgh, NY ex-cons in a plot to attack U.S. military aircraft and plant bombs at synagogues in Riverdale, NY. The arrest follows a "long line of homegrown, headline-making terror plots since Sept. 11 that never came close to reality because the FBI inserted itself in the earliest stages," according to AP writers Michael Hill and Jim Fitzgerald. The FBI has been extraordinarily effective, lucky, or played a significant role in developing would-be homegrown threats using undercover informers.

The FBI arrested alleged plotters James Cromitie, David Williams, Laguerre Payen, and Onta Williams. According to the criminal complaint, an FBI informant met Cromitie about a year ago. Cromitie allegedly expressed anger over the deaths of Afghani and Pakistani Muslims as a result of American military actions and wanted to "do something" about it.

Over the next ten months, the FBI's informant apparently facilitated those desires. What do we know so far?
1. In response to Cromitie's inflammatory language, the FBI dispatched a paid FBI informant. It is not known if the informant attended the Masjid Al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh before June 2008, although it seems likely. Payen and Cromitie occasionally attended Friday prayers at the mosque.

2. The informant traveled with Cromitie, Williams, and Payen to Stamford to secure what they believed to be a guided missile system and three improvised explosive devices. The informant said he secured these free Stinger missiles through his Pakistan-based terror group, but of course they were dummies.

3. The informant held several meetings with the alleged plotters at his home, which the FBI wired for audio and video surveillance.

4. The informant traveled to the Stewart Air National Guard base with Cromitie and David Williams.

5. Cromitie discussed his interest in joining a Pakistan-based terrorist group, though that's only part of the story. In fact, the unidentified informant originally claimed to be a member of a Pakistan jihadist group, Jaish-e-Mohammed ("Army of Mohammed"), or JEM, according to the Times Herald-Record. Later, the co-conspirators allegedly pledged allegiance to JEM.

6. The head imam of the mosque reports that over the past several months, and maybe for more than a year, a man had been coming to the mosque and mingling with members, and offering them $25,000 to become involved in some unspecified activity. Concerned members reported it back to the head imam, Salahuddin Mustafa Muhammed, but they did not tell police because they assumed the man was an informant to some government agency trying to bait others, according to Hema Easley of

7. 21-year-old Payen served a 15-month prison term for attempted assault, suffered from paranoia, and was on medication. He came to the mosque in March, apparently homeless. The other alleged plotters also served time in prison for drug, assault, or weapons possession charges. According to several sources, these men were "amateurs every step of the way." For instance, Senator Charles Schumer said that "the group was relatively unsophisticated, penetrated early and not connected to any outside group."

Aside from using an informant to aid this plot, it is not clear that the FBI tried to intervene or otherwise prevent these individuals from plotting a violent attack. Rather, the informant's role suggests facilitation and possible provocation. Prevention might be a more prudent and humane policy, but it certainly would not garner the same headlines if the FBI had merely called Cromitie in for an encounter.

In the long run, the four plotters will likely be convicted of terrorism-related acts. The defendants were permitted to plant inert C-4 plastic explosives in a car at the Riverdale, NY synagogue. In the recent Fort Dix case, all of the defendants were acquitted of attempted murder charges -- perhaps because their plot had not gone far enough (click here for a NY Times article on the FBI informants' role in the Fort Dix case). But criminal convictions should not be sole measure of domestic counter-terrorism policy.

If the FBI's strategy is to develop nascent plots to their logical violent conclusion (or otherwise stoke the flames of potential violent extremists), how does that advance the goal of security?

It would appear that FBI Director Mueller's strategy -- a holdover from the Ashcroft Dept. of Justice -- is to use these headlines to stoke fears of Muslims, justify intensive domestic surveillance, and reinforce the notion that domestic terrorism by lone wolves is a real threat to national security. In response to this week's arrests, comments to news blogs call Muslims animals, savages, and worse. This strategy only serves the interests of American conservatism, which is at root, a politics of fear and negation that cannot function without an enemy.

As for the alleged terrorists, I can only acknowledge disappointment that these men distorted the tenets of Islam, threatened Jewish people and American service-people with violence, and allowed themselves to be duped by another government agent. Muslim groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Muslim Public Affairs Committee have vehemently denounced the plotters' actions and hate. CAIR and MPAC know all too well that their constituents will be the targets of any backlash from the American public (either from private individuals or official government policy).

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.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Defending Convention Dissent in St. Paul

On May 15, 2009, Judge Wilson of the Ramsey County District Court granted RNC defendant Sean McCoy's motion for a new trial. So far, St. Paul has prosecuted ten defendants on 34 charges without a single conviction involving arrests during the Republican Convention last summer. Many defendants in Denver similarly defeated unfounded charges that arose from mass arrests. Thanks to lawyers like Bruce Nestor (of the National Lawyers Guild, Minnesota) and Denver's NLG People's Law Project, protestors who demonstrate around national political conventions are avoiding costly convictions. But how long are we going to let this pattern persist?

Aggressive policing, pre-emptive arrests, paramilitarized cops, and intolerance for dissent repeatedly mark our "national security special events." But legal proceedings after the events -- from LA (DNC 2000) to NYC (RNC 2004), Seattle (WTO 1999) to Miami (FTAA 2003) and DC -- keep showing that the arrests do not meet the standards of the law. In addition, the government spends millions to arm local police with the latest in high-tech crowd suppression weaponry, rather than addressing the social needs that often prompt protest.

According to Nestor, McCoy had originally faced four misdemeanor charges and was convicted of a petty misdemeanor offense of Public Assembly without a Permit and ordered to pay a fine of $50.00. At trial, a Ramsey County acquitted him of Fleeing a Police Officer and the trial judge threw out charges of Unlawful Assembly and Obstructing Traffic. The order granting the Motion for New Trial found that the jury instructions were flawed because they omitted the element of the offense that a person had to know they were engaged in a public assembly without a permit. The St. Paul City Attorney now has the option of retrying McCoy on the Public Assembly without a Permit charge.

Homeland's Lexicon of "Extremism"

In May 2009, Homeland Security released -- and quickly retracted -- a "Domestic Extremism Lexicon," one in a series of reference aids designed to provide operational and intelligence advice to state, local, and regional fusion centers. This Lexicon is likely to increase suspicion and surveillance of activists from the right and left.

During facilitated workshops, Homeland Security (DHS) intelligence analysts developed definitions of a range of domestic political groupings using "open source" materials and unclassified information. The 11 pages of the latest Lexicon define:
  • animal rights extremism

  • antiabortion extremism

  • anti-immigration extremism

  • antitechnology extremism

  • anarchist extremism

  • black bloc

  • Black nationalism

  • Black power

  • Christian Identity

  • direct action

  • environmental extremism

  • green anarchism

  • hate groups

  • Jewish extremism

  • leftwing extremism

  • militia movement

  • neo-Nazis, and

  • racist skinheads
Just last month, a DHS report on the threat of rightwing extremism sparked an outcry across the blogosphere from political conservatives for suggesting that returning veterans could become terrorists. Now, according to Matthew Harwood of the Guardian, conservative websites are "apoplectic" about how "rightwing extremism" was described by DHS:
A movement of rightwing groups or individuals who can be broadly divided into those who are primarily hate-oriented, and those who are mainly anti-government and reject federal authority in favour of state or local authority. This term may also refer to rightwing extremist movements that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.
William Jasper at the New American wrote that "The 'definitions' provided in the lexicon are politically slanted to poison the law enforcement community against millions of Americans who might be called (and who might identify themselves as) political, social and religious 'conservatives.'"

Yes, but DHS is clearly not singling out rightwing views in its assault on free speech. Leftwing views are also suspect. Without reference to specific violent terrorist activity, the Lexicon vaguely defines "violent antiwar extremism" as
A movement of groups or individuals who advocate or engage in criminal activity and plot acts of violence and terrorism in an attempt to voice their opposition to U.S. involvement in war-related activities. They often target the military, seats of government power, and defense industry personnel, facilities, and activities.
Likewise, the "black bloc" is described as a collection of violent anarchists and anarchist affinity groups that band together for illegal acts of civil disturbance and use tactics that destroy property or strain law enforcement resources."

What are the implications of DHS analysts developing such an ideologically charged "reference aid" and pushing it out to state agencies?
1. Homeland Security apparently operates under a broad definition of what constitutes a threat to national security. The agency's emphasis on studying low intensity threats such as civil disturbance, property damage, and economic harm may risk missing large-scale, serious threats.

2. By focusing on political speech, Homeland Security may not only misperceive threats, but also chill freedom of speech and press. The Lexicon defines "alternative media" as a "forum for interpretations of events and issues that differ radically from those presented in mass media products and outlets." By mining the alternative media to analyze the opinions and tactics of dissenters, the government tells people who challenge government policies and journalists who report on them: "We are watching you."

3. Without adequate oversight and a narrow definition of its mission, DHS officials have too much latitude to collect political intelligence.

4. In the past, the FBI used the pretext of foreign interference to justify surveillance and disruption of indigenous political movements. Today, Homeland Security has dropped all pretense of concern for foreign interference. "Homegrown extremism" is the new buzzword to justify spying on alleged "subversives."
In order to guarantee the constitutional rights of all Americans, whether on the Left or Right, we need to hold all domestic security agencies to a requirement of evidence of criminal activity before any kind of investigation can be launched. Without the safeguard of a "criminal predicate," DHS can continue to urge local and state police and fusion centers to conduct political witch-hunts.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Boston Police Snoop at Celebs - Who's Next?

So Boston police troll the Criminal Record Information system to find personal information about local movie stars and sports heroes. We know that from a state audit released on May 6, 2009. Today, ACLU Massachusetts director Carol Rose and Michael German correctly point out that misuse of law enforcement databases doesn't stop with the stars. "Unmonitored access to poorly regulated databases gives power to local law enforcement to pry into and share information about innocent people and potential criminals alike," said Rose.

In an environment of lax oversight, police and staffers at the Commonwealth Fusion Center and Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) have little incentive to protect our privacy. Information sharing systems developed since 9/11 increase the potential for government snooping into peoples' personal affairs. In 2008, Massachusetts launched the State Wide Information Sharing System (SWISS) to reach out, seamlessly collect, and store incident information from its 351 cities and towns in a centralized data warehouse. Such "incident information" is not restricted to criminal data. When fused with personal data from private databases used by the fusion center, such as Choicepoint, the potential for government abuse becomes widespread.

Local civil liberties advocates, together with a state lawmaker from Worcester, are proposing oversight legislation which would ensure greater checks on law enforcement power.