July 11, 2006 – During the buildup to the 2004 Republican and Democratic national conventions, Coloradoan Sarah Bardwell was one of several activists around the country to be paid a visit from federal and other law-enforcement agents. She was in her garage fixing bikes with members of a local bicycle collective, she recalls, when "two FBI agents, two guys in SWAT gear and two members of the Denver Police Department showed upâ€� and started asking questions about her intentions with regard to the events coming up in Boston and New York City.
"No one [at the house] was even planning on goingâ€� to the political conventions, Bardwell recently recounted, â€œWe were all much more focused on community organizing." Although it was the first and last visit, and their questions led nowhere, she told The NewStandard last week that "it definitely left a residue of fear â€“ even to this day â€“ among people who had that experience."
With revelations surrounding government spying now regular fare in the media, government agencies â€“ including the FBI, the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense and local police departments â€“ are coming under increased scrutiny for both the scope and the legality of their tactics in the so-called â€œwar on terror.â€�
Bardwell is among a growing number of critics charging that the governmentâ€™s targeting of religious institutions and nonviolent activist organizations for spying is not just unnecessary and unconstitutional but may be ushering in a new era of timidity among potential dissidents.
Local police sometimes operate as part of coalitions of local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies known as Joint Terrorism Task Forces.
Since January of this year, it has been discovered through leaked memos and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that anti-war groups, including Veterans for Peace, United for Peace and Justice, the Truth Project and others, have been or are being monitored by the Department of Defense.
Michael McConnell, Great Lakes regional director of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) said he suspects the heightened level of government monitoring will affect activist efforts. "If peopleâ€™s fears are artificially raised to be suspicious of a broader range of groups and individuals â€“ which right now includes grandmothers and Quakers â€“ then it is reasonable that they would be dissuaded from contacting us because of this irrational fear," he told TNS.
"We get caught up in that net,â€� McConnell added, â€œand it is very likely to hinder what we do." The AFSC is a Quaker â€œpeace and social justiceâ€� organization with offices across the country and has been active in the anti-war movement.
AFSC has been in a legal battle with the Chicago Police Department since a public audit, released in 2004, revealed that the Quaker activistsâ€™ local meetings were infiltrated by undercover police interested in their plans to protest an upcoming meeting of European and North American corporate leaders called the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialog in November 2002.
â€œEven though that group espouses peace and all that, they might be involved in other criminal activities that would be violent and would warrant investigation.â€
"There was some press when the infiltration broke,â€� McConnell recalled, â€œand people called to say 'Does this mean that I should try to get my FBI files or that this phone conversation is being taped?' We definitely were worried about how people would react to us."
A case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of AFSC accuses the Chicago Police Department (CPD) of publicly identifying the Quaker group as the target of a police investigation, thereby interfering with the activistsâ€™ First Amendment right to organize.
CPD lawyers filed a motion to dismiss the case, but federal Judge Joan B. Gottschall maintained in March that the AFSC's claim had legal precedent. She cited a precedent in which the judge decided that "the mere anticipation of the practical consequences of joining or remaining withâ€� an activist group under scrutiny of law enforcement â€œmay well dissuade some individuals from becoming members, or may persuade others to resign their membership."
ACLU spokesperson Ed Yohnka remarked of the case, "Revealing this publicly creates a sense that the AFSC, a peaceful group with a long history of peaceful activities, has been linked to criminal activity or is dangerous."
The CPD is not alone, as more and more local law-enforcement agencies are joining the spy act. Agencies sometimes work alone to secretly surveil activist groups, but they also operate as part of coalitions of local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies known as Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs).
Professor Alasdair S. Roberts, government transparency expert, has employed FOIA requests to obtain so-called â€œMemorandums of Understanding,â€� documents used by the Justice Department to describe the relationship between the FBI and police departments across the country. Roberts told TNS: "The rules of the game are that the local police force that is a part of a JTTF is not allowed to relay information about the activity of the task force without the approval of the FBI. This is pitched as a partnership, but information about what the group is doing is very much in the hands of the FBI."
The impact on public attitudes toward groups that are even suspected of having drawn the attention of government snoops cannot be measured.
With most of their activity classified, Roberts said, there is great potential for violations to occur under the radar of watchdogs. Roberts is the author of Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age.
There were only 35 JTTFs around the country before 9/11. Today, that number has nearly tripled, according to the FBI's website.
Nevertheless, FBI spokesperson Bill Carter told TNS that the Bureauâ€™s "overriding priority is to prevent, disrupt and defeat criminal or terrorist operations before they occur.â€� He added, â€œWe donâ€˜t monitor political activity."
Yet a growing number of people across the country say they have evidence to the contrary.
Among them is Christy Pardew, spokesperson for School of the Americas (SOA) Watch, an organization nonviolently campaigning to close down the US Army training academy now called the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation. SOA Watch staff obtained the groupâ€™s FBI file earlier this year through a FOIA request.
In the 53 pages released to the group, FBI notes repeatedly characterize the group as "peaceful," emphasizing the leadershipâ€™s commitment to nonviolent means of social change. Yet the Bureauâ€™s surveillance level jumped from â€œroutineâ€� to â€œpriorityâ€� in 2001, with the paperwork from that point forward going through the counterterrorism division.
When asked about why SOA Watch might spark the interest of the FBI's domestic counterterrorism division, FBI Spokesman Carter told TNS: â€œIf we have an indication that a group is planning on breaking into a military base and causing destruction, that would be of interest to the FBI. Even though that group espouses peace and all that, they might be involved in other criminal activities that would be violent and would warrant investigation.â€�
SOA Watch has never been charged with involvement in violent activities or crimes not committed in public.
Carter said the FBI divides terrorism into two spheres: domestic and international. â€œDomestic terrorism is homegrown groups, including such groups as white supremacists, black separatists, animal rights, environmental terrorists, anarchists, anti-abortion extremists and self-styled militia groups,â€� he said. In addition, the Bureau responds to leads about groups that are planning violent activity, Carter said, adding, â€œWe donâ€™t launch fishing expeditions.â€�
Muslim-rights activist Munira Syeda sees things differently. She told TNS she believes that "religious affiliation itself has become a basis for suspicion and that is unacceptable and unconstitutional."
However, she said, â€œit's gotten much better over the past five years or so, and our relationship with law enforcement has improved a lot, but it's a process." Syeda is communications coordinator of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIRâ€“SC), the countryâ€™s largest Muslim advocacy group and civil-rights watchdog.
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, law-enforcement agents rounded up Muslim immigrants en masse, shuttered several Islamic charities and imposed what was perceived as a general state of intimidation on the American Muslim community.
To improve relations, CAIRâ€“SC has been working with local FBI and other law-enforcement agencies, organizing "diversity trainings" and even a Town Hall meeting following allegations published in the local press that the FBI was monitoring Muslim student groups at University of Southern California and UCâ€“Irvine. "It caused a wave of concern, skepticism, some anger and some frustration," Syeda said.
"We have members of the community who have reacted defensively and avoid activism or going to their local mosque, or publicly practicing their faith because they fear they might be wrongly associated with extremism,â€� she added.
While concrete instances of surveillance abound, it is difficult to measure how much of the chilling effect can be attributed directly to covert government actions affecting individuals and how much of it is due to simple fear of affiliation. And for every group that knows it is being directly and specifically spied on, no one outside federal intelligence circles knows how many peaceful groupsâ€™ phones are tapped, or how many people are â€œflaggedâ€� in the NSAâ€™s telephone-record database for having called an activist or Islamic group.
The impact on public attitudes toward groups that are even suspected of having drawn the attention of government snoops cannot be measured, of course. But of the dozen activists from myriad groups around the country interviewed for this story, a perceived â€œchilling effectâ€� of the apparent upsurge in surveillance was a standard concern.
â€œComputers crash and people wonder why,â€� said Ann Mauney, coordinator of the Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition, mentioned in a Department of Defense database obtained and published by MSNBC earlier this year. â€œIt is a pervasive atmosphere of awareness that whatever we say could be accessed, or at least that's the perception."
The Thomas Merton Center, a peace organization in Pittsburgh, has also been targeted by FBI surveillance, according to documents obtained by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act request. Those documents show agents were monitoring and photographing the groupâ€™s anti-war leafleting activities and documenting the involvement of activists who looked like they were of Middle Eastern descent.
Jeremy Shenk, a member of the Thomas Merton Center, told TNS: "Every year in Pittsburgh, we do a march on the anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. This year the amount of law enforcement and people taking pictures on roofs was unprecedented. As an organization, we are still getting very good numbers and we're not going to be deterred, but I think that might be the point of overt surveillance."
From Georgia, Mauney echoed Shenkâ€™s sentiments. â€œAs for all of those potential activists out there who don't come forward,â€� she said, â€œitâ€™s hard to say, because we never get to know them. But the feeling among those who are most active is determination. We feel increased responsibility.â€�