September 30, 2010

American Jewish World Editorial: FBI Raids in Minneapolis

At 7 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 24, FBI agents executed search warrants at six addresses in Minneapolis. Two residences in Chicago were raided at the same time. The FBI agents, under the aegis of a Joint Terrorism Task Force, were looking for evidence related to alleged violations of a 1996 federal law prohibiting “material support” to “FTOs,” foreign terrorist organizations, according to the search warrants.

The targets of the FBI raids were all prominent activists in the local antiwar movement, members of groups that regularly organize street protests against the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and also demonstrate against the U.S. government’s support for the State of Israel.

In one raid on Sept. 24, at Mick Kelly’s apartment in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, FBI agents broke through the door. The search warrant specified the seizure of documents, computers, e-mail records, cell phones, etc., relating to travel to “Palestine [sic], Colombia and travel within the United States from 2000 to present.”

No one has been arrested, so far; but the feds have subpoenaed about a dozen of the left-wing political activists to testify before a federal grand jury in Chicago. The investigation underway is probing links between the political organizers and such groups as FARC, the armed rebel group in Colombia; the Progressive Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); and Hezbollah, the Shiite political and paramilitary group based in Lebanon. The search warrants also mention links between these FTOs and the activists’ involvement with the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a “revolutionary socialist” group opposed to this nation’s foreign wars.

As one might expect, allies of the activists subjected to the FBI raids quickly organized protests this week at FBI offices in 19 cities across the country. The raids were decried as political harassment and intimidation, and an attempt to conflate peaceful protest with “terrorism.”

“The FBI is harassing antiwar organizers and leaders, folks who opposed U.S. intervention in the Middle East and Latin America,” Kelly told the Star Tribune, before agents confiscated his cell phone.

The FBI raids here and in Chicago follow the June decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, which considered the role of a humanitarian group advising groups designated as terrorist by the U.S. State Department, in the case at hand, guerrilla groups in Sri Lanka and Turkey.

The Obama administration (represented by then Solicitor General Elena Kagan, who is now the newest member of the Supreme Court), sought to support the material support statute, arguing before the high court that any humanitarian aid to a terrorist group ultimately supports the group’s violent activities. In a succinct summation of the government’s case, Kagan argued: “Hezbollah builds bombs. Hezbollah also builds homes. What Congress decided was when you help Hezbollah build homes, you are also helping Hezbollah build bombs.”

The USA PATRIOT Act, which was passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, added a ban on “expert advice or assistance” to the material support statute. Critics of the law argue that it unlawfully limits free speech by preventing humanitarian aid groups from advising FTOs on issues such as respect for human rights and conflict resolution.

The court, in a 6-3 vote, upheld the material support law. In an unusual step, Justice Stephen Breyer read his dissent aloud in the courtroom: “Not even the ’serious and deadly problem’ of international terrorism can require automatic forfeiture of First Amendment rights,” he said. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor joined the dissent.

The FBI raids last Friday now have taken things a giant step further, as the U.S. government casts a large, ominous shadow over those who publicly protest its foreign policies. The activists whose homes were tossed by FBI agents assert that they are not proponents of “terrorism” and have done nothing wrong, beyond advocating for groups engaged in social struggles in Latin America and the Middle East.

It also should be pointed out that the FBI raids came just days after the U.S. Justice Department inspector general issued a report on FBI surveillance of “domestic advocacy groups” over six years, 2001-2006. Looking at the FBI surveillance of various groups — the Thomas Merton Center, in Pittsburgh, Penn.; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA); Greenpeace USA; the Religious Society of Friends (the “Quakers”), etc. — the inspector general’s report found that the FBI “used questionable investigative techniques and improperly collected and retained First Amendment information in FBI files.” The 209-page report determined that although FBI spying was not “based solely on the First Amendment activities of these groups, they had an impact on the First Amendment rights of those groups and their members.”

In other words, the FBI surveillance of political activists involved in various movements over many years had a chilling effect on constitutionally protected free speech and political organizing.

Further, former FBI agent and whistleblower Coleen Rowley pointed out in an article on the Huffington Post Web site this week that the FBI’s surveillance of domestic peace activists did not stop in 2006. Rather, she points to an article in the Des Moines Register last week, which, based on documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, reported that FBI agents conducted extensive surveillance on activists prior to the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul. The newspaper previously reported on FBI surveillance of protesters in Iowa City, in 2008, but the new documents, 300 pages, show that the spying was more extensive: “Agents staked out the homes of political activists, secretly photographed and shot videos of them, pored through their garbage, and studied their cell phone and motor vehicle records, according to records detailing the FBI’s counterterrorism investigation.”

The newspaper report added: “Federal agents and other law enforcement officers also watched and documented the protesters’ comings and goings at such places as the Iowa City Public Library; the New Pioneer Co-op natural foods store; the Red Avocado restaurant and the Deadwood Tavern; and the Wesley Center campus ministry of the United Methodist Church.”

Once more: FBI agents found the home addresses of political activists in Iowa City, researched the schedule for curbside garbage pickup, then grabbed their trash in the early-morning hours before the trucks came through the neighborhood.

This is your tax dollars at work.

In addition to the use of an FBI informant planted in the Iowa City protest group, the Des Moines Register also mentioned that an undercover deputy from the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office attended an antiwar conference in April 2008.

(Full disclosure: I know a great deal about the police and FBI infiltration and surveillance of the anarchist group called the RNC Welcoming Committee, which organized logistics for protests against the 2008 Republican National Convention [RNC] in St. Paul. My son, Max, 21, was preemptively arrested and jailed before the RNC began. He and seven co-defendants, the RNC 8, were initially charged with “conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism,” under Minnesota’s version of the USA PATRIOT Act. The charges with terrorism-enhanced penalties were dropped seven months later; but Max and three co-defendants still face felony conspiracy charges and are scheduled to go on trial Oct. 25 in Ramsey County court. The case has dragged on for more than two years.)

Applying the rubric of “terrorism” to the exercise of rights that most people take as protected by the First Amendment represents a dangerous trend. The FBI raids last week in Minneapolis and the upcoming grand jury proceedings appear to be a further attempt by the federal government, and law enforcement at all levels, to conflate homegrown dissenters with terrorists. The “war on terror” apparently has come to roost in our domestic political culture. And Jewish World readers should take no satisfaction from the fact that pro-Palestinian solidarity activists are being subjected to this treatment by the FBI. This is the scheme of things right now; but if our First Amendment rights are whittled away to nothing, who can say that at some point, in a future Orwellian version of America, gathering to support Israel will not be declared out of bounds?

The Department of Justice inspector general’s report, which covered a period through 2006, needs to be updated. Congressional hearings should be called to probe the substance of the recent report, and incidents of FBI and police surveillance of domestic political activists over the past four years — in Minneapolis, Iowa City and elsewhere.

Sen. Al Franken, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, expressed concern about the excesses of the USA PATRIOT Act when he was running for the Senate. In light of the disturbing FBI raids last week in Minneapolis and Chicago, Sen. Franken should request that the Judiciary Committee hold hearings similar to the Church committee hearings in 1976, which looked at the FBI’s COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program) activities, and a host of law enforcement efforts to spy on and disrupt anti-Vietnam War student groups, the Black Panthers, American Indian Movement, socialist groups and other dissenters in the turbulent 1960s.

We are in another difficult period, with the U.S. mired in foreign wars and a sinking economy. We must act now to preserve our endangered civil liberties.

— Mordecai Specktor / [email protected]