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The FBI and Occupy: sometimes it ain’t paranoia

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 30th, 2012


The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) has obtained FBI documents
detailing the agency’s national efforts to monitor the Occupy Wall Street
movement. Click here for more.

Last week, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) reported:

FBI documents just obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) pursuant to the PCJF’s Freedom of Information Act demands reveal that from its inception, the FBI treated the Occupy movement as a potential criminal and terrorist threat even though the agency acknowledges in documents that organizers explicitly called for peaceful protest and did “not condone the use of violence” at occupy protests.

At the time of the wave of crackdowns against Occupy Wall Street (OWS) encampments around the country, some writers — most prominently Naomi Wolf (“The shocking truth about the crackdown on Occupy,” 11/25/11) — argued that events showed “coordination against OWS at the highest national levels,” while others like Joshua Holland felt the “word “coordinated” is too vague to offer any analytic value.” 

In followups, many progressive commentators joined Holland in minimizing the federal role in the crackdowns.  First relying on Holland’s rebuttal, and later focusing on reports from Portland exonerating the Obama DHS in that city, Corey Robin, for instance, argued that the “Crackdown on Occupy [was] Probably Not Organized by the Obama Administration.”  To be clear: the motive wasn’t to minimize the crackdowns, but to question the need to invoke a driving federal role in them.*  As Scott Lemieux (“Lawyers, Guns & Money”) put it mockingly — he seems not to be able to help himself — Wolf’s position implied that “authoritarian actions could not be the result of our benevolent local overlords but must be the work of the big bad feds.    History does not provide much support for this assumption.”  Robin’s analysis was the same, if more circumspect: “political repression in the US tends to be decentralized and local.”  Call it the “They don’t need no steenkin’ federal badges” analysis.

The documents obtained by PCJF — in this “production” and previous ones throughout the year — make that view not wrong so much as uninteresting, even beside the point.

True, there’s no smoking gun directly tying the DHS or the FBI to the violent evictions or the decisions leading to them.*  But the documents show that focusing on the evictions per se was an analytic mistake of its own: federal agencies from the FBI to DHS to the National Park Service had laid the groundwork well before then.


PCFJ exec. director Mara Verheyden-Hilliard on “Democracy Now!”

A Democracy Now! segment summarizes the news of the document release:

…the FBI monitored Occupy Wall Street from its earliest days and treated the nonviolent movement as a potential terrorist threat. Internal government records show Occupy was treated as a potential threat when organizing first began in August of 2011. Counterterrorism agents were used to track Occupy activities, despite the internal acknowledgment that the movement opposed violent tactics. The monitoring expanded across the country as Occupy grew into a national movement, with FBI agents sharing information with businesses, local police agencies and universities.

Among the examples PCJF highlights:

  • 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 Anchorage reported from a Joint Terrorism Task Force meeting of November 3, 2011, about Occupy activities in Anchorage.
  • A port Facility Security Officer in Anchorage coordinated with the FBI to attend the meeting of protestors and gain intelligence on the planning of the port actions. He was advised to request the presence of an Anchorage Police Department official to also attend the event. The FBI Special Agent told the undercover private operative that he would notify the Joint Terrorism Task Force and that he would provide a point of contact at the Anchorage Police Department.
  • The Tampa, Florida FBI “Domestic Terrorism” liaison participated with the Tampa Police Department’s monthly intelligence meeting in which Occupy Lakeland, Occupy Polk County and Occupy St. Petersburg were discussed. They reported on an individual “leading the Occupy Tampa” and plans for travel to Gainesville for a protest planning meeting, as well as on Veterans for Peace plans to protest at MacDill Air Force Base.
  • The Federal Reserve in Richmond appears to have had personnel surveilling OWS planning. They were in contact with the FBI in Richmond to “pass on information regarding the movement known as occupy Wall Street.” There were repeated communications “to pass on updates of the events and decisions made during the small rallies and the following information received from the Capital Police Intelligence Unit through JTTF (Joint Terrorism Task Force).”

Note the very real institutional linkages between federal and local agencies via the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) — and ponder the all but indestructible fate, going forward, of all the data collected and shared that way.  As PCFJ executive director Mara Verheyden-Hilliard told Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now!”:

…you can see, through these documents, the FBI is collecting a lot of information on completely lawful activities, on the activities of people who are not alleged to have committed criminal acts, are not planning criminal acts, who actually are engaged in cherished, First Amendment-protected activities. And yet, it’s being collected under the imprimatur of domestic terrorism or criminal activity and being entered into these mass databases, which have a huge level of dissemination and access and which are virtually unregulated.

Many of us have been deeply concerned about things like the Maryland State Police’s mid-2000s-decade infiltration of anti-death penalty, peace, and environmental groups (with some names shared to a federally maintained database as “terrorists”), or the FBI’s September 2010 “material support” raids on labor and peace solidarity activists in the Midwest.  This nationwide effort may have resulted in the FBI’s biggest haul of activist names in decades.  You never know when that will come in handy.

Let’s also return to the violent OWS crackdowns in November 2011.  Here’s a question for theorists like Lemieux or Robin: is there any point at which the sheer churn of federal OWS  information sharing or the constant characterization of OWS activities as “potential criminal activity” — even maybe “terrorism” –becomes encouragement of crackdowns against them? (Call this the “Who will rid us of this troublesome protest group?” analysis.)  What are local police or political officials to think if they get repeated phone calls from the FBI about Occupy, are told how to prep HAZMAT teams, and in some cases get second streams of information from Joint Terrorism Task Forces?

Whether you’re Mayberry RFD or, God forbid, the NYPD: if you’re getting stuff — day in, day out — about OWS in your inbox with a an “FBI” or “DHS” return address, then the “subtext”, the fundamental message you’re getting is not “hey, whatever, do what you think best, guys.”  It’s: “finally! some work to do — and something to brag about in next year’s budget request.”

=====
* True also: these documents were heavily redacted, but suggest there are meetings and correspondence still relevant to the FOIA request; PCJF is appealing for more materials to be released.
EDIT,  12/30/12:”a driving federal role in them” for “a federal role” at Mr. Robin’s request.
UPDATE, 12/30/12: Mr. Lemieux writes briefly on the PCJF’s most recent documents.  As the “Crying Wolf” title suggests, he mainly reacts to Ms. Wolf’s summary, recycling his “benevolent local overlords” straw man line, but also summarizing the documents obtained by PCJF as simply a “description of planned Occupy protests followed by a lot of redacted material.”
UPDATE, 12/31/12: Marcy Wheeler (“emptywheel”) already had more and better on this on the 26th (Dear FBI: Show Your Work); she says the documents reveal prior FBI deceptions and misstatements about its own practices (e.g., its “Domain Management Programs”), and that the FBI’s “(b)(7)(E)“investigation technique” redactions may have merely removed the URL(s) of  Occupy web site (s) allegedly recommending protesters bring tasers and billy clubs.  Wheeler makes a reasonable guess about the motive: “…because that would show that FBI is using the timeworn “investigation techniques” of “drawing illogical conclusions from public claims” and “just making shit up” to invent the reason to use First Amendment activities as the predicate for an investigation.”

One Response to “The FBI and Occupy: sometimes it ain’t paranoia”

  1. Video: Sue Udry (Defending Dissent Foundation) speaks at Defending Dissent forum | Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition Says:

    [...] The FBI and Occupy: Sometimes it Ain’t Paranoia (newsrackblog, 12/30/12) [...]

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