You Are Being Watched
by Kristie Reilly
In These times magazine,
In late April, two teen-age students in
Oakland, California, got an unwelcome, real-life lesson in civics.
During a heated class discussion at Oakland High School about
politics and President Bush, the boys made comments the exact
nature of which are in dispute, but which their teacher believed
constituted a threat toward the president. The teacher went to
Secret Service agents showed up at the
high school the next day to interview the boys, both 16. The school
principal sat in for an hour and a half as agents interviewed
each student individually, without their parents' knowledge or
consent. "He asked us questions like was I a good shooter
... was I a good sniper ... am I good dealing with guns, and what
are my thoughts on the president," one of the boys told San
Francisco Bayview. "I was very scared. I was crying because
of what they said to us."
The FBI has followed up on thousands of
"tips" since the attacks of 9/11. In June, Atlanta bookstore
employee Marc Schultz found himself visited by FBI agents after
someone spotted him reading an article titled "Weapons of
Mass Stupidity" at a local coffee shop. Schultz has dark
hair and a beard, and the combination was apparently enough to
make someone call the FBI. Schultz says the agents told him: "There's
no problem. We'd just like to get to the bottom of this. Now,
if we can't, then you may have a problem. And you don't want that."
The FBI denies investigating anyone solely
for First Amendment activities. "The mere fact that we go
out and talk to someone does not cast aspersions on them, is not
intended to violate their rights," says Ross Rice of the
FBl's Chicago office.
Perhaps more disturbing than jarring visits
from the FBI are signs that state, local, and federal law enforcement
agencies are systematically monitoring First Amendment activities-including
those of religious groups-in the name of safety and security in
a post-9/11 age.
The reorganization of federal law enforcement
agencies into the Office of Homeland Security-along with the myriad
new powers granted to law enforcement by Attorney General John
Ashcroft-has resulted in an unprecedented consolidation of federal,
state, and local law enforcement power.
The FBI contacted the San Francisco Independent
Media Center after 9/11, according to lan MacKenzie, a volunteer
at the center, to investigate what they said was a posting threatening
the president. Agents wanted user logs for the group's Web site,
"which we don't have," MacKenzie says, "so we couldn't
give to them." He says federal agents have contacted Indymedia
centers around the country in efforts to discover the identities
of specific online posters. "What it tells me," he says,
"is that they keep track of us, and that they watch independent
Is MacKenzie paranoid? Maybe not. In March,
San Francisco police told the San Francisco Chronicle that they
routinely monitored the center's Web site, and infiltrated demonstrations
announced on the site. San Francisco police also said they routinely
videotape large demonstrations.
In the past year, state and local police
departments from Oakland to Atlanta have admitted to monitoring
political protest and other kinds of associational activity.
"I don't think this is different
from people being visited in the '60s," says Ed Yohnka of
the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
"What we're seeing again today is a pattern across the country.
This isn't a kind of random response. This is clearly part of
affirmative policies to engage in these kinds of activities."
In March 2002, the ACLU filed a lawsuit
in Denver charging that, beginning in the early '80s, police had
monitored peaceful protest and First Amendment expression. "The
police have no legitimate reason to keep files on the peaceful
expression of political views and opinions," the ACLU's Mark
Silverstein said at the time.
Ignoring a city prohibition against the
collection of First Amendment-related intelligence, the Denver
Police developed files on 208 organizations and 3,200 individuals.
The department appears to have continued its surveillance until
the fall of 2002, despite the ACLU lawsuit. Monitored groups included
the American Friends Service Committee (a pacifist Quaker group),
Amnesty International and many others with no history of criminal
activity. Documents obtained by the ACLU describe how police intercepted
e-mails, recorded the license plate numbers of vehicles at demonstrations,
and infiltrated advocacy group meetings.
Under the terms of a settlement reached
in May, Denver police can no longer gather First Amendment-related
information without a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
As a result, the surveillance threshold in Denver is far higher
than that of the federal government, particularly since Attorney
General John Ashcroft loosened domestic spying guidelines last
Consent decrees like Denver's were established
in numerous U.S. cities in the wake of the COINTELPRO-era abuses
of the '60s and '70s. But while Denver may represent a bright
spot in the post-9/11 battle for civil liberties, other cities'
consent decrees are under assault. New York law enforcement officials
successfully argued in court that the city's decree hindered its
investigations into terrorism, particularly in regard to snooping
on mosques. Its restrictions on First Amendment-related surveillance
have subsequently been eliminated.
In early 2001, the Chicago police won
a similar effort to weaken its consent decree and, in the fall
of 2002, began to utilize its renewed surveillance powers. City
police sought the change, says Lt. Tina Skahill of the Chicago
Police Office of Legal Affairs, because they needed greater power
to fight "street gangs and guns and drugs. Basically what
we're interested in is the safety of the citizens." But when
asked whether the surveillance powers are being used solely to
monitor "gangs and guns and drugs," Skahill wavers:
The modified consent decree is used in relation to "any information
we have that comes to our attention where we believe the safety
of citizens is concerned."
As a major part of the Bush administration's
anti-terrorism strategy, the FBI added local police officers to
the staff at its 66 regional Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs)-half
of which were established after 9/11.
Documents obtained by the ACLU in its
Denver lawsuit portray an extraordinary level of surveillance
of First-Amendment activity protected by the Bill of Rights. They
also indicate a high level of cooperation between the Denver police
and the FBI.
Denver police forwarded intercepted e-mails
and the license plate numbers of activists at nonviolent demonstrations
to the Denver JTTF. The e-mails appear to be disturbingly minor:
One sent in 2001 to members of the Rocky Mountain Animal Defense
group contained only a few sentences, directing members to distribute
an attached flyer that promoted a "Fur Free Friday"
A similar cooperation between local, state,
and federal law enforcement may be reflected in a recent crackdown
on activists in St. Louis. Demonstrators in that city had planned
to protest at the annual meeting of the World Agricultural Forum
in May. But before the protest, representatives from several police
departments, including Seattle's, visited St. Louis police to
share tactics and information about violent protest. Though St.
Louis police deny making preemptive arrests, activists say that
as a result of these visits, two days before the scheduled demonstration,
police pre-emptively arrested 22 of the protest organizers. "The
[visiting police] basically put the St. Louis Police Department
on a state of high alert," says J. Justin Meehan, an attorney
who represented those arrested. "Sensing the worst, the police
decided to proactively and unilaterally have a pre-emptive strike."
Meehan says he and other activists believe
federal and state law enforcement were also involved in the arrests:
"lt is believed the Office of Homeland Security was involved,"
says Meehan. "There were officers there who refused to identify
themselves and who were in a position of authority."
Ashcroft's Justice Department also advises
police officers in at least some states to gather information
on "enemies in our own backyard." In a police training
manual titled "A Police Response to Terrorism in the Heartland:
Integrating Law Enforcement Intelligence and Community Policing"
officers are encouraged to investigate members of the "Green
Movement" defined as "environmental activism that is
aimed at political and social reform with the explicit attempt
to develop environmental-friendly policy, law and behavior."
In February, Newsweek reported that the
FBI plans to set investigative and wiretap goals based on demographic
information, including the number of mosques in an area. The Domestic
Security Enhancement Act of 2003, or Patriot II, which Congress
will take up in the coming months, would also eliminate municipal
agreements that limit investigations and intrusive monitoring.
"This is not simply a random circumstance," says the
ACLU's Yohnka, "but appears to be part of a larger, broader
pattern coming out of Washington, D.C."
Activists are feeling the heat. "Not
to be alarmist, but what's increasingly clear to me-and I don't
do anything illegal, I'm a volunteer with a leftist news organization-is
that no one is safe," says MacKenzie from the San Francisco
Indymedia Center. "Anyone can be and will be targeted. It
should be sobering. Liberals, leftists-everyone is a target."