October 1, 2010

FBI Raids Reveal Repressive Apparatus Run Amok

A recent Inspector General’s report on the FBI’s investigations of certain domestic advocacy groups from 2002-2006 found that the agency considered routine civil-disobedience violations, such as trespassing or vandalism, potential terrorism. For example, the Bureau determined that spilling human blood on walls, an American flag, and pictures were “forceful acts” sufficient to trigger inclusion on terror watchlists. The FBI today threatens to label peace activists – and a wide swath of people with whom they associate – as “terrorists” because of First Amendment activities that include travel and public education. Apparently, the bad practices under the Bush administration have not been reformed.

As a think tank that grew out of opposition to the FBI’s coordinated assault on dissenters during the 1970s, Political Research Associates (PRA) has witnessed and studied the penchant of American intelligence systems to treat peoples’ movements as subversive. The FBI belongs to a post-9/11 domestic security apparatus that is unprecedented in size, and largely unaccountable to democratic control. A recent Washington Post article estimated its size at 845,000 public and private personnel. As protectors of civil liberties, Congress must embrace its oversight function and reign in homeland security agencies that continue to confuse ideology for crime.

PRA adds its voice to those of other progressive and civil liberties organizations, and all those who value democracy and dissent, in denouncing these raids. We believe that all Americans should stand in defense of the Constitution and all individuals who have been wrongly targeted for their principles objection to U.S. military interventions abroad.

Anti-War Activists Targeted by FBI

Days after the release of the IG’s report, the FBI raided the homes of twenty peace activists from Minneapolis to Chicago under the guise of fighting terrorism. The harsh manner in which the raids were conducted, the sweeping scope of the warrants, and the lack of any credible threat of terrorism all suggest that the FBI may once again be abusing its power to intimidate social change movements.

Beginning on Friday, September 24, the FBI executed search warrants against at least eight homes and offices in Chicago, upstate Michigan, the Twin Cities, and Ohio. In Minneapolis, a SWAT team knocked on activist Mick Kelly’s door at about 7 a.m. When Kelly’s partner asked to see the search warrant, the agents busted down the door, causing it to fly across the room and break a fish tank.

About twenty agents spent most of the day searching the Chicago home of activists Stephanie Weiner and Joseph Iosbaker. “We aren’t doing anything differently than we have in twenty years,” said Weiner, a teacher at Wilbur Wright College. The FBI carried thirty boxes of papers dating from the 1970s from Iosbaker’s attic to sift for evidence. In Jefferson Park, FBI agents removed boxes and electronic equipment from the apartment of community activist Hatem Abudayyeh, executive director of the Arab American Action Network.

The FBI also raided the homes of Jessica Sundin and Meredity Aby, who helped organize rallies at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul. The FBI and local law enforcement infiltrated advocacy groups prior to the RNC and charged several protestors with terrorism offenses, which were later dismissed outright.Sundin called the suggestion that they were connected with terrorism “pretty hilarious and ridiculous.” Mick Kelly’s lawyer, Ted Dooley, explained that the FBI agents were looking for “everything related to potential co-conspirators, including Kelly’s personal contacts in the United States and abroad. It’s kind of unconstitutional and hideous.”

The activists targeted are involved in numerous groups, including the Palestine Solidarity Group, Students for a Democratic Society, the Twin Cities Anti-War Committee, the Colombia Action Network, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), and the National Committee to Free Ricardo Palmera (a Colombian political prisoner).

At least a dozen activists were served subpoenas from a grand jury seeking records of payments to Abudayyeh’s organization and groups on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

No arrests have been made, suggesting that prosecutors lack probable cause for an indictment against anyone. An FBI spokesperson admitted to the Associated Press that the bureau knows of no “imminent threat to the community.” He said the FBI was seeking evidence related to “activities concerning material support for terrorism” as part of an ongoing Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation.

Several of the FBI’s targets belong to FRSO and occasionally contribute to a socialist newsletter that is critical of the U.S. wars of occupation in Iraq andAfghanistan. The subpoena issued to FRSO activist Thomas Burke requested “items related to trips to Colombia, Jordan, Syria, and the Palestinian territories.” Burke said he had toured Colombia eight years ago with members of an oil workers union.He told the press, “We barely have money to publish our magazine. We might write about [revolutionary groups] favorably, but as for giving them material aid, nothing.”

Labeling Free Speech as Subversive

These raids mark a disturbing pattern of criminalizing Americans’ international solidarity work. According to Thomas Cincotta, the Civil Liberties Project Director at PRA, “the FBI has played fast and loose with the definition of terrorism, abusing its power to intimidate and repress challengers of U.S. foreign policy.”

Political Research Associates maintains a library and archive that documents the U.S. government’s long history of red-baiting and demonizing the Left, from the Red Scare of the 1920s to McCarthyism to J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal COINTELPROprogram during the 1960s and 1970s, which aimed to “neutralize” the Black Panther Party and other civil rights organizations. Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress were labeled terrorists during the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. In the 1980s, the FBI closely monitored U. S. activists who supported the resistance to dictatorship and U.S. intervention in Central America. When all the facts were revealed in 1988, Congress repeatedly criticized the FBI for interpreting “support for terrorism” to include peaceful political and humanitarian activities. According to the civil rights expert David Cole, the FBI admitted that its investigation of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, in particular, had been overbroad, improperly focused on activities permitted under the First Amendment, and a waste of resources.

Anti-terrorism laws have given the FBI wide latitude to repress political activists as well as American Muslims. The FBI felt that reforms instituted following the CISPES investigation tied its hands in domestic investigations. In response, Congress included a “support for terrorism” provision in the 1996 Antiterrorism Act that has paved the way for the FBI to slide back to the days of Hoover.

Since 9/11, PRA has witnessed the selective prosecution of Muslims, South Asians, Arabs, and people of Middle Eastern descent using the “material support” and immigration laws. Under Attorney General Ashcroft’s direction, thousands of Muslim immigrants were rounded up and deported or interviewed, but no actual terrorists were uncovered. PRA’s 2010 Report, Platform for Prejudice explains how the Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative encourages law enforcement and the public to profile on the basis of race and religion and treat dissenters as potential terrorists.Just as the Justice Department cast a wide net over communities of Muslims and people of Middle Eastern and Arab nationalities, the FBI seems to be imposing collective guilt over an entire network of peace activists.

PRA shares the concerns of the Charity and Security Network, which sees connections between the recent raids on activists and discriminatory scrutiny of Muslim charities. In both circumstances, the “material support” law has been used to tar Americans with the terrorist label even where no threat exists. The government has even tried to punish groups for interacting with people or groups that are not on the U.S. list of designated terrorist organizations. For example, leaders of the Holy Land Foundation were convicted of providing material support because they gave aid to local zakat committees that were not on the list, but that the government alleged were controlled by Hamas, which is on the list. (zakat committees distribute charity for the poor and aged, in accordance with one of the Five Pillars of Islam). The trial court did not require the jury to find that the defendants knew or even should have known that these committees had Hamas connections.

In the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the Court held that it is constitutional for Congress to prohibit a broad range of interactions with designated terrorist groups, including attempts at peace building and support for nonviolence. Offering advice, training, and service to a designated terrorist organization, the Court said, constitutes material support for terrorism under the 1996 law. It emphasized that the prohibition does not apply to pure political speech, naively asserting, “the statute is carefully drawn to cover only a narrow category of speech…in coordination with foreign groups that the speaker knows to be terrorist organizations.” However, the opinion provides no definition of “coordinated,” leaving room for overly broad interpretations.

Tell Congress to Stop Political Repression

PRA has observed that liberals and right-wing groups tend to tolerate state repression when it targets political opponents. Just as PRA criticized Homeland Security reports on Right Wing Extremism in 2009, we now call on all people of good conscience to defend the Constitution. The conservative blogosphere – the same one that warns of a creeping fascism in the United States – is trying to use the raids to smear Obama and unions. A blogger at the conservative Red State claims that trade unionists who will march on Washington on October 2nd to demand jobs are unpatriotic Leftists, linked to terrorism abroad. Another right wing pundit tries to slander Obama by pointing to his past “ties” with the Arab American Action Network.Says Cincotta, “These narrow-minded responses illustrate the destructive power of the terrorism label. They underscore the need for constant vigilance to defend the presumption of innocence and respect for the First Amendment no matter where you stand.”

So far, progressives and civil libertarians are responding with action. Groups such as the National Lawyers Guild pledged support for the protestors. Bruce Nestor, former president of the guild, calls the raids “a direct attack on people who are strong, dedicated advocates of freedom, of the right of people to be free from U.S.domination. It is an attack upon anybody who organizes against U.S. imperialism abroad.”

Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at PRA who helped litigate against illegal FBI surveillance in the 1960s, emphasized the need for Congressional oversight, no matter who is in the White House: “Since its beginning, the FBI has proved itself incapable of discerning the difference between free speech and dissent, and subversion and terrorism. By repeatedly conflating dissent with terrorism, the FBI defies the clear mandate of the Constitution, which it is sworn to uphold. They only thing that reigns in this marauding is Congress. And the only thing that will force Congress to act is a swift kick by people across the political spectrum.”

Although the tactics of intimidation are familiar, we cannot ignore them. People are already organizing loud, visible protests to challenge the legitimacy of the FBI’s raids. To show your support, you can:

  • Call the attorney general’s office at (202) 353-1555 to demand an end to intimidation of peace activists.
  • Call your congressional representative to demand that the FBI stop harassing activists and close the “material support” loopholes that give the FBI room to target peaceful domestic advocacy. Congress should hold hearings on the violations identified in the Inspector General’s recent report and uncover the full extent of the FBI’s misuse of counter-terror laws and watchlist practices.
  • Participate in local actions to protest these raids, including outside the Grand Jury convening in Chicago on October 12.