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The Wonderful American World of Informers and Agents Provocateurs

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Posted on Jun 28, 2013
Svadlifari (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Todd Gitlin, TomDispatch

(Page 4)

So far, the prize for pure fused wordiness goes to a 215-page manual issued in 2009 by the Virginia Fusion Center (VFC), filled with Keystone Kop-style passages among pages that in their intrusive sweep are anything but funny.  The VFC warned, for instance, that “the Garbage Liberation Front (GLF) is an ecological direct action group that demonstrates the joining of anarchism and environmental movements.”  Among GLF’s dangerous activities well worth the watching, the VFC included “dumpster diving, squatting, and train hopping.”

In a similarly jaw-dropping manner, the manual claimed—the italics are mine—that “Katuah Earth First (KEF), based in Asheville, North Carolina, sends activists throughout the region to train and engage in criminal activity. KEF has trained local environmentalists in non-violent tactics, including blocking roads and leading demonstrations, at action camps in Virginia.  While KEF has been primarily involved in protests and university outreach, members have also engaged in vandalism.”  Vandalism!  Send out an APB!

The VFC also warned that, “[a]lthough the anarchist threat to Virginia is assessed as low, these individuals view the government as unnecessary, which could lead to threats or attacks against government figures or establishments.”  It singled out the following 2008 incidents as worth notice:

• At the Martinsville Speedway, “A temporary employee called in a bomb threat during a Sprint Cup race… because he was tired of picking up trash and wanted to go home.”

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• In Missouri, “a mobile security team observed an individual photographing an unspecified oil refinery… The person abruptly left the scene before he could be questioned.”

• Somewhere in Virginia, “seven passengers aboard a white pontoon boat dressed in traditional Middle Eastern garments immediately sped away after being sighted in the recreational area, which is in close proximity to” a power plant.

What idiot or idiots wrote this script?

Given a disturbing lack of evidence of terrorist actions undertaken or in prospect, the authors even warned:

“It is likely that potential incidents of interest are occurring, but that such incidents are either not recognized by initial responders or simply not reported. The lack of detailed information for Virginia instances of monitored trends should not be construed to represent a lack of occurrence.”

Lest it be thought that Virginia stands alone and shivering on the summit of bureaucratic stupidity, consider an “intelligence report” from the North Central Texas fusion center, which in a 2009 “Prevention Awareness Bulletin” described, in the ACLU’s words, “a purported conspiracy between Muslim civil rights organizations, lobbying groups, the anti-war movement, a former U.S. Congresswoman, the U.S. Treasury Department, and hip hop bands to spread tolerance in the United States, which would ‘provide an environment for terrorist organizations to flourish.’”

And those Virginia and Texas fusion centers were hardly alone in expanding the definition of “terrorist” to fit just about anyone who might oppose government policies.  According to a 2010 report in the Los Angeles Times, the Justice Department Inspector General found that “FBI agents improperly opened investigations into Greenpeace and several other domestic advocacy groups after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and put the names of some of their members on terrorist watch lists based on evidence that turned out to be ‘factually weak.’”  The Inspector General called “troubling” what the Los Angeles Times described as “singling out some of the domestic groups for investigations that lasted up to five years, and were extended ‘without adequate basis.’”

Subsequently, the FBI continued to maintain investigative files on groups like Greenpeace, the Catholic Worker, and the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh, cases where (in the politely put words of the Inspector General’s report) “there was little indication of any possible federal crimes… In some cases, the FBI classified some investigations relating to nonviolent civil disobedience under its ‘acts of terrorism’ classification.” 

One of these investigations concerned Greenpeace protests planned for ExxonMobil shareholder meetings.  (Note: I was on Greenpeace’s board of directors during three of those years.)  The inquiry was kept open “for over three years, long past the shareholder meetings that the subjects were supposedly planning to disrupt.”  The FBI put the names of Greenpeace members on its federal watch list.  Around the same time, an ExxonMobil-funded lobby got the IRS to audit Greenpeace.

This counterintelligence archipelago of malfeasance and stupidity is sometimes fused with ass-covering fabrication.  In Pittsburgh, on the day after Thanksgiving 2002 (“a slow work day” in the Justice Department Inspector General’s estimation), a rookie FBI agent was outfitted with a camera, sent to an antiwar rally, and told to look for terrorism suspects.  The “possibility that any useful information would result from this make-work assignment was remote,” the report added drily.

“The agent was unable to identify any terrorism subjects at the event, but he photographed a woman in order to have something to show his supervisor.  He told us he had spoken to a woman leafletter at the rally who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, and that she was probably the person he photographed.”

The sequel was not quite so droll.  The Inspector General found that FBI officials, including their chief lawyer in Pittsburgh, manufactured postdated “routing slips” and the rest of a phony paper trail to justify this surveillance retroactively.

Moreover, at least one fusion center has involved military intelligence in civilian law enforcement.  In 2009, a military operative from Fort Lewis, Washington, worked undercover collecting information on peace groups in the Northwest.  In fact, he helped run the Port Militarization Resistance group’s Listserv.  Once uncovered, he told activists there were others doing similar work in the Army.  How much the military spies on American citizens is unknown and, at the moment at least, unknowable.

Do we hear an echo from the abyss of the counterintelligence programs of the 1960s and 1970s, when FBI memos—I have some in my own heavily redacted files obtained through an FOIA request—were routinely copied to military intelligence units?  Then, too, military intelligence operatives spied on activists who violated no laws, were not suspected of violating laws, and had they violated laws, would not have been under military jurisdiction in any case.  During those years, more than 1,500 Army intelligence agents in plain clothes were spying, undercover, on domestic political groups (according to Military Surveillance of Civilian Politics, 1967-70, an unpublished dissertation by former Army intelligence captain Christopher H. Pyle). They posed as students, sometimes growing long hair and beards for the purpose, or as reporters and camera crews.  They recorded speeches and conversations on concealed tape recorders. The Army lied about their purposes, claiming they were interested solely in “civil disturbance planning.”

Years later, I met one of these agents, now retired, in San Francisco.  He knew more about what I was doing in the late 1960s than my mother did.


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