Raids on Activists May Indicate FBI Abuse of Power
(Image: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: mar is sea Y,
On the heels of a series of FBI raids on anti-war activists, an
FBI whistleblower and constitutional rights groups are calling out
the agency for overstepping its bounds, fearing that its increased powers could infringe on First Amendment
rights and silence dissent.
Agents searched the homes of anti-war activists in Chicago,
Minneapolis, Michigan and Durham, North Carolina in the last two
weeks of September, along with the offices of the Minnesota Anti-War
Committee, confiscating computers, cell phones, large amounts of paper and financial records, according to the activists and their
"The FBI raids seem to reflect the latest actions by a recidivist
agency that has lost sight of its mission to protect public safety," Shahid Buttar,
executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and the
People's Campaign for the Constitution told Truthout.
According to the subpoenas, the activists, who were involved in
labor causes, the anti-war movement and the Arab American Action
Network, are being investigated for contact they may have had with
members of Hezbollah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of
Palestine and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The spokesman for the FBI in Minneapolis said, "the warrants are
seeking evidence in support of an ongoing Joint Terrorism Task Force
investigation into activities concerningthe material support of
All the individuals involved in the raids denied their
connections to terrorist organizations, and said any meetings or contact they may have had with the
groups were perfectly legal.
The FBI has come under attack recently from a string of reports
and investigations that showcase an unfair targeting of activists.
Just days before the raids of activists in the Midwest and North
Carolina, the Department of Justice released a report finding that between 2001 and 2006,
the FBI kept tabs on activists affiliated with Greenpeace, People
for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), Catholic Workers and
Quakers. According to the report, the agency improperly placed these individuals on terrorist watch lists, and gave inaccurate
and misleading information to Congress and the public about its activities.
"The Bureau's standard for undercover activities is known neither
by the public nor Congress," Buttar wrote in an op-ed in Truthout earlier this
year. "Intelligence agencies may justifiably pursue clandestine activities, but should not
operate according to secret rules - at least not in countries that claim to lead the free
The FBI disclosed part of its policy following a Freedom of
Information Act request made by Buttar, but the section on undercover infiltration has
A two-year Washington Post investigation, "Top Secret America,"
detailed the extent of domestic spying and found that the web it
wove was so widespread it had become entirely unwieldy: "The top-secret world the government created
in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so
unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it
employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many
agencies do the same work."
James R. Clapper, then undersecretary of defense for intelligence
and now director of national intelligence, told the investigators in June 2010,
"There's only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all SAPs [Special Access
Programs] - that's God."
Colleen Rowley, a former FBI agent and whistleblower, told
Truthout it was "breathtaking to recognize the irony" of the raids on individuals involved in
left-leaning, domestic, advocacy groups only days after the flurry of criticism against
the agency's mode of operation.
Rowley, who left the FBI in 2004 after 24 years with the agency,
said the blunders were part of a wider change in FBI rules and the ways it evaluates
Quantitative rather than qualitative evaluation now means that
individual agents are under increased pressure to meet targets,
Rowley said, which is evidenced by recent reports of FBI cheating on internal tests.
On September 27, 2010, an internal FBI investigation found
widespread cheating on a test related to Bush-era guidelines on justification needed to
target a domestic group. The investigators "found test-taking
conduct that constituted cheating and abuse, such as the use of answer sheets when taking the exam," which Rowley
considers further justification of the response: "Oh my gosh, how can they be continuing after
The 2001 Patriot Act loosened restrictions on domestic
information gathering by law enforcement agencies, but even these
powers have been exploited by the FBI, notes Buttar - three separate reports in 2007, 2008 and 2010 document
abuse of the powers extended by President George W. Bush after the
attacks on 9/11.
Both Buttar and Rowley said that the erosion of FBI constraints
reached a new level in 2008 - the Mukasey Guidelines, meant to provide consolidated
standards for agents to follow, effectively switched the
presumption of one of proving guilt to proving innocence.
FBI Director Robert Mueller testified to the Senate Judiciary
Committee that FBI agents could not exercise surveillance in the absence of "suspicion,"
but later amended his statement in a note to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois). In his
note, according to The Associated Press, Mueller said that the FBI "must have a proper
purpose before conducting surveillance, but suspicion of wrongdoing is not
Much of the FBI's abuses have been painted as overhangs of the
Bush era, but Rowley notes that current president Barack Obama is
a constitutional lawyer, and a Supreme Court case that she calls "the most recent nail in the coffin"
was put through under the Obama administration.
The legal prohibitions in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project make
it a crime to provide support, including humanitarian aid,
literature distribution and political advocacy, to any groups that the United States government has designated as a
"terrorist" group. The 12-year case, a challenge to the material
support statute, was concluded this summer with the Supreme Court voting 6-to-3 that the statute's prohibitions
on expert advice, training, service and personnel were not vague and
did not violate speech rights.
But Buttar, Rowley and William Quigley, legal director of the
Center for Constitutional Rights, said the loose definition of "material support" could
criminalize political speech and humanitarian aid, and by extension, the right to free speech
guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Quigley noted that the raids on anti-war activists "would have
been thought totally ridiculous before the Supreme Court case."
"It is still ridiculous, but now also ominous. Whether this is a
policy decision by the Department of Justice and the Obama administration or whether
this is just a few over-zealous FBI agents we don't know yet,"
Quigley continued, "but unfortunately the people who are targeted are going to be the guinea pigs for the rest of
us to find this out."
At a grand jury hearing held Tuesday in Chicago, the activists
who had their homes raided refused to testify and assist the
government investigation of their activities.
For Rowley, the focus of the raids on individuals who have been
involved with anti-war movements indicates an extreme illogic in
American national security policy - "the mentality to believe that if you are against the war on terror that somehow
makes you a terrorist."
The raids on the homes of activists "did signal that the war on
terror," Rowley said, "has now been turned inward on domestic advocacy groups."
Yana Kunichoff is a Truthout Fellow.