Page 1 of 2 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Close encounters of the low-tech kind
By Todd Gitlin
Only Martians, by now, are unaware of the phone and online data scooped up by the National Security Agency (though if it turns out that they are aware, the NSA has surely picked up their signals and crunched their metadata). American high-tech surveillance is not, however, the only kind around. There's also the lower tech, up-close-and-personal kind that involves informers and sometimes government-instigated violence.
Just how much of this is going on and in how coordinated a way no one out here in the spied-upon world knows. The lower-tech stuff gets reported, if at all, only one singular, isolated event at a time - look over here, look over there, now you see it, now you don't. What is known about such surveillance as well as the
suborning of illegal acts by government agencies, including the FBI, in the name of counter-terrorism has not been put together by major news organizations in a way that would give us an overview of the phenomenon. (The ACLU has done by far the best job of compiling reports on spying on Americans of this sort.)
Some intriguing bits about informers and agents provocateurs briefly made it into the public spotlight when Occupy Wall Street was riding high. But as always, dots need connecting. Here is a preliminary attempt to sort out some patterns behind what could be the next big story about government surveillance and provocation in America.
Two stories from Occupy Wall Street
The first is about surveillance. The second is about provocation.
On September 17, 2011, Plan A for the New York activists who came to be known as Occupy Wall Street was to march to the territory outside the bank headquarters of JPMorgan Chase. Once there, they discovered that the block was entirely fenced in. Many activists came to believe that the police had learned their initial destination from e-mail circulating beforehand. Whereupon they headed for nearby Zuccotti Park and a movement was born.
The evening before May Day 2012, a rump Occupy group marched out of San Francisco's Dolores Park and into the Mission District, a neighborhood where not so many 1-percenters live, work, or shop. There, they proceeded to trash "mom and pop shops, local boutiques and businesses, and cars," according to Scott Rossi, a medic and eyewitness, who summed his feelings up this way afterward: "We were hijacked". The people "leading the march tonight," he added, were
"clean cut, athletic, commanding, gravitas not borne of charisma but of testosterone and intimidation. They were decked out in outfits typically attributed to those in the 'black bloc' spectrum of tactics, yet their clothes were too new, and something was just off about them. They were very combative and nearly physically violent with the livestreamers on site, and got ignorant with me, a medic, when I intervened... I didn't recognize any of these people. Their eyes were too angry, their mouths were too severe. They felt 'military' if that makes sense. Something just wasn't right about them on too many levels".
He was quick to add, "I'm not one of those tin foil hat conspiracy theorists. I don't subscribe to those theories that Queen Elizabeth's Reptilian slave driver masters run the Fed. I've read up on agents provocateurs and plants and that sort of thing and I have to say that, without a doubt, I believe 100% that the people that started tonight's events in the Mission were exactly that".
Taken aback, Occupy San Francisco condemned the sideshow: "We consider these acts of vandalism and violence a brutal assault on our community and the 99%".
Where does such vandalism and violence come from? We don't know. There are actual activists who believe that they are doing good this way; and there are government infiltrators; and then there are double agents who don't know who they work for, ultimately, but like smashing things or blowing them up. By definition, masked trashers of windows in Oakland or elsewhere are anonymous. In anonymity, they - and the burners of flags and setters of bombs - magnify their power. They hijack the media spotlight. In this way, tiny groups - incendiary, sincere, fraudulent, whoever they are - seize levers that can move the entire world.
The sting of the clueless bee
Who casts the first stone? Who smashes the first window? Who teaches bombers to build and plant actual or spurious bombs? The history of the secret police planting agents provocateurs in popular movements goes back at least to nineteenth century France and twentieth century Russia. In 1905, for example, the priest who led St Petersburg's revolution was some sort of double agent, as was the man who organized the assassination of the Czar's uncle, the Grand Duke. As it happens, the United States has its own surprisingly full history of such planted agents at work turning small groups or movements in directions that, for better or far more often worse, they weren't planning on going.
One well-documented case is that of "Tommy the Traveler", a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organizer who after years of trying to arouse violent action convinced two 19-year-old students to firebomb an ROTC headquarters at Hobart College in upstate New York. The writer John Schultz reported on likely provocateurs in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention of 1968. How much of this sort of thing went on? Who knows? Many relevant documents molder in unopened archives, or have been heavily redacted or destroyed.
As the Boston marathon bombing illustrates, there are homegrown terrorists capable of producing the weapons they need and killing Americans without the slightest help from the US government. But historically, it's surprising how relatively often the gendarme is also a ringleader. Just how often is hard to know, since information on the subject is fiendishly hard to pry loose from the secret world.
Through 2011, 508 defendants in the US were prosecuted in what the Department of Justice calls "terrorism-related cases". According to Mother Jones's Trevor Aaronson, the FBI ran sting operations that "resulted in prosecutions against 158 defendants" - about one-third of the total. "Of that total, 49 defendants participated in plots led by an agent provocateur - an FBI operative instigating terrorist action. With three exceptions, all of the high-profile domestic terror plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings."
In Cleveland, on May Day of 2012, in the words of a Rolling Stone expose, the FBI "turned five stoner misfits into the world's most hapless terrorist cell". To do this, the FBI put a deeply indebted, convicted bank robber and bad-check passer on their payroll, and hooked him up with an arms dealer, also paid by the Bureau. The FBI undercover man then hustled five wacked-out wannabe anarchists into procuring what they thought was enough C4 plastic explosive to build bombs they thought would blow up a bridge. The bombs were, of course, dummies. The five were arrested and await trial.
What do such cases mean? What is the FBI up to? Trevor Aaronson offers this appraisal:
"The FBI's goal is to create a hostile environment for terrorist recruiters and operators - by raising the risk of even the smallest step toward violent action. It's a form of deterrence… Advocates insist it has been effective, noting that there hasn't been a successful large-scale attack against the United States since 9/11. But what can't be answered - as many former and current FBI agents acknowledge - is how many of the bureau's targets would have taken the step over the line at all, were it not for an informant."
Perhaps Aaronson is a bit too generous. The FBI may, at times, be anything but thoughtful in its provocations. It may, in fact, be flatly dopey. COINTELPRO records released since the 1960s under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that it took FBI Director J Edgar Hoover until 1968 to discover that there was such a thing as a New Left that might be of interest. Between 1960 and 1968, as the New Left was becoming a formidable force in its own right, the Bureau's top officials seem to have thought that groups like Students for a Democratic Society were simply covers for the Communist Party, which was like mistaking the fleas for the dog. We have been assured that the FBI of today has learned something since the days of J Edgar Hoover. But of ignorance and stupidity there is no end.
Trivial and nontrivial pursuits
Entrapment and instigation to commit crimes are in themselves genuine dangers to American liberties, even when the liberties are those of the reckless and wild. But there is another danger to such pursuits: the attention the authorities pay to nonexistent threats (or the creation of such threats) is attention not paid to actual threats.
Anyone concerned about the security of Americans should cast a suspicious eye on the allocation or simply squandering of resources on wild goose chases. Consider some particulars which have recently come to light. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) has unearthed documents showing that, in 2011 and 2012, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other federal agencies were busy surveilling and worrying about a good number of Occupy groups - during the very time that they were missing actual warnings about actual terrorist actions.
From its beginnings, the Occupy movement was of considerable interest to the DHS, the FBI, and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies, while true terrorists were slipping past the nets they cast in the wrong places. In the fall of 2011, the DHS specifically asked its regional affiliates to report on "Peaceful Activist Demonstrations, in addition to reporting on domestic terrorist acts and 'significant criminal activity.'"
Aware that Occupy was overwhelmingly peaceful, the federally funded Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), one of 77 coordination centers known generically as "fusion centers", was busy monitoring Occupy Boston daily. As the investigative journalist Michael Isikoff recently reported, they were not only tracking Occupy-related Facebook pages and websites but "writing reports on the movement's potential impact on 'commercial and financial sector assets.'"
It was in this period that the FBI received the second of two Russian police warnings about the extremist Islamist activities of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the future Boston Marathon bomber. That city's police commissioner later testified that the federal authorities did not pass any information at all about the Tsarnaev brothers on to him, though there's no point in letting the Boston police off the hook either. The ACLU has uncovered documents showing that, during the same period, they were paying close attention to the internal workings of Code Pink and Veterans for Peace.
Public agencies and the "private sector"
So we know that Boston's master coordinators - its Committee on Public Safety, you might say - were worried about constitutionally protected activity, including its consequences for "commercial and financial sector assets". Unsurprisingly, the feds worked closely with Wall Street even before the settling of Zuccotti Park. More surprisingly, in Alaska, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, intelligence was not only pooled among public law enforcement agencies, but shared with private corporations - and vice versa.
Nationally, in 2011, the FBI and DHS were, in the words of Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, "treating protests against the corporate and banking structure of America as potential criminal and terrorist activity". Last December using FOIA, PCJF obtained 112 pages of documents (heavily redacted) revealing a good deal of evidence for what might otherwise seem like an outlandish charge: that federal authorities were, in Verheyden-Hilliard's words, "functioning as a de facto intelligence arm of Wall Street and Corporate America". Consider these examples from PCJF's summary of federal agencies working directly not only with local authorities but on behalf of the private sector:
"As early as August 19, 2011, the FBI in New York was meeting with the New York Stock Exchange to discuss the Occupy Wall Street protests that wouldn't start for another month. By September, prior to the start of the OWS, the FBI was notifying businesses that they might be the focus of an OWS protest".
"The FBI in Albany and the Syracuse Joint Terrorism Task Force disseminated information to...  campus police officials... A representative of the State University of New York at Oswego contacted the FBI for information on the OWS protests and reported to the FBI on the SUNY-Oswego Occupy encampment made up of students and professors".
An entity called the Domestic Security Alliance Council (DSAC), "a strategic partnership between the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector," sent around information regarding Occupy protests at West Coast ports [on Nov. 2, 2011] to "raise awareness concerning this type of criminal activity". The DSAC report contained "a 'handling notice' that the information is 'meant for use primarily within the corporate security community. Such messages shall not be released in either written or oral form to the media, the general public or other personnel…' Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS) reported to DSAC on the relationship between OWS and organized labor."
DSAC gave tips to its corporate clients on "civil unrest," which it defined as running the gamut from "small, organized rallies to large-scale demonstrations and rioting". It advised corporate employees to dress conservatively, avoid political discussions and "avoid all large gatherings related to civil issues. Even seemingly peaceful rallies can spur violent activity or be met with resistance by security forces".
The FBI in Anchorage, Jacksonville, Tampa, Richmond, Memphis, Milwaukee, and Birmingham also gathered information and briefed local officials on wholly peaceful Occupy activities.
In Jackson, Mississippi, FBI agents "attended a meeting with the Bank Security Group in Biloxi, MS with multiple private banks and the Biloxi Police Department, in which they discussed an announced protest for 'National Bad Bank Sit-In-Day' on December 7, 2011". Also in Jackson, "the Joint Terrorism Task Force issued a 'Counterterrorism Preparedness' alert" that, despite heavy redactions, notes the need to 'document…the Occupy Wall Street Movement'".