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Tales of Big Brother

What do a software engineer, an intern, and three young men in Missouri have in common? Each has been the target of the FBI's efforts to intimidate political protesters before the party convention.
 
 
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Editor's Note: Since the 9/11 attacks, many of our Orwellian nightmares have come true: Innocent people rounded up in police sweeps; detainees held without evidence or access to a lawyer for months on end; and the rapid erosion of our most basic right to privacy. We didn't think it could get worse until the FBI decided to target dissent in the name of national security. In the lead up to the Democratic and now Republican conventions, scores of activists have heard the proverbial knock on the door. These are just three of the very many stories of harrasment and intimidation that mark a new low for American democracy.

A Visit from Agent Faul

Paul Bame is a 45-year-old software engineer in Fort Collins, Colorado. He's also a nonviolent political activist. On the afternoon of July 22, an FBI agent named Ted Faul called Bame's home, he says. "He left a message on my machine saying that he wanted to talk to me about something," Bame recalls. "I was afraid."

Bame went to work the next day and took a break for lunch. "When I got back to work, there was a security guard offering to escort me to the lobby to talk to somebody named Ted," he says.

Bame met Agent Faul.

"He said the visit was not supposed to be embarrassing or accusatory," Bame recalls. "But of course, it seems pretty embarrassing and accusatory to have the FBI visit you at your place of work. At some companies, I might have lost my job. That didn't happen here, thank goodness."

Agent Faul gave some indication of why he was interested in speaking to Bame. "He said my name came up at headquarters as someone who might have information about plans for mayhem at the conventions," Bame says. "He wondered if I had that information. And I responded that I'd be happy to discuss this with him with a lawyer present."

Agent Faul pressed on, according to Bame: "He said, 'Is there any particular piece of this that you think you need a lawyer present for?' "

Bame says he responded: "Whenever questioned by the FBI, I think it's wise to have a lawyer present."

And that was pretty much the end of the encounter, he says.

The New York Times reported on Aug. 16 that "the FBI has been questioning political protesters across the country" about events planned at the conventions. That article said that civil rights advocates believe that "at least 40 or 50 people, and perhaps more," have been visited by the FBI.

Bame was one of them.

"We were conducting Joint Terrorism Task Force interviews throughout the nation," says Monique Kelso, a spokeswoman for the Denver FBI office. "We were following up on leads of potential individuals that could possibly have information about disruption or possible illegal activity at the conventions or upcoming elections."

The ACLU condemns the FBI for the interviews. "These JTTF visits are an abuse of power," says Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado. They are designed, he says, to intimidate people "from exercising their constitutional right to protest government policies and associate with others who want to protest government policies."

Bame agrees. "I was scared to death the whole time," he says. "I felt in my bones it was a scare tactic, it was intimidation. It's really disgusting that explicitly nonviolent protesters are getting questioned as if they're terrorists."

Bame says he worries about the chilling effect. "It makes people feel pretty bad if one of their neighbors is visited by the FBI," he says. "They start to wonder, 'Am I going to be next?' "

Bame says he has been arrested twice at demonstrations. The first time was at the World Bank-IMF protests in September 2002. "I pleaded guilty to parading without a permit because I didn't want to take the time to contest the charge," he says. "It was just an infraction, and I was fined $50."

The second was at the Miami-FTAA fiasco in November. "Several days before the demonstration, I and four others were arrested on a public sidewalk in the Miami business district," he says. "We were charged with obstructing the sidewalk. It was a completely fictitious charge. And the case was dismissed." Bame has joined a class action suit against the Miami police department.

Even though he was shaken up by his encounter with the FBI, Bame is not going to stop protesting. "Despite my fear," he says, "I'm going to New York."

'Community Outreach' in Denver

On Aug. 16, Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times revealed that the FBI has been "questioning political demonstrators" about major events this election season. He mentioned Sarah Bardwell, a 21-year-old intern at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Denver. I spoke with Bardwell on Aug. 20.

Four FBI agents and two Denver police officers came to her home on July 22, at about 4:30 in the afternoon, she recalls. "One guy was in all swat, dressed in black, with six guns on him," she says.

They gathered Bardwell's housemates together.

"They told us they were 'doing community outreach' but then they said they were doing 'preemptive investigations' into possible or suspected 'anarchists, terrorists, and murderers,' " she recalls.

"I told them maybe they should talk to the Denver police because they recently shot a man in my neighborhood," she says.

The FBI agents then began to probe about upcoming political events. "They asked us if we were planning any criminal actions at the Republican National Convention, the Democratic National Convention, and the inauguration," she says. "And then they asked us if we knew anyone who was planning such actions. And they told us if we withheld this information, that was a crime."

Bardwell and her housemates refused to answer. (She says, though, that "no one at the house was planning on going to the conventions. It's really weird.") She says the officers "were vigorously taking notes and looking into our house and at our bicycles." One of her housemates asked them if they had a warrant, and they responded something like this, Bardwell says: " 'Oh, we don't need a warrant. We're just here to talk. It's a friendly visit.' "

There was some banter back and forth, she recalls. "They asked us what our names were," she says. "We told them they probably knew our names, but we didn't give them to them. We asked for their names, but they said they wouldn't give us theirs if we didn't give them ours."

But then the conversation turned ominous. "They told us they were going to have to take 'more intrusive efforts' because they took the fact that we were not answering their questions as noncooperation," she says. "I asked if that was a threat. They denied that it was. And they left shortly after that, saying something like, 'We'll see you later.' And me thinking, 'I hope not.' "

Looking back, Bardwell recognizes how scared she was. "I was afraid the whole time, afraid of what they were going to do to my house, afraid of my safety and my future," she says. "It's a really scary thing to have the FBI say they're going to be more intrusive than coming to your house!"

When the FBI left, her roommates all expressed "shock and fear and anger," she says. One said: "I can't fucking believe that just happened," Bardwell recalls, adding: " 'Is this 1984 or what?' got said probably a million times."

While the FBI and Denver police were descending on Bardwell's home, another team appeared at their friends' house down the street. "They had a much more aggressive experience than we had," she says. "The officers were more threatening. And one officer was moving to pull his gun out when one friend was trying to get their ID from the kitchen counter."

Joe Parris, an FBI spokesman in Washington, told The New York Times about the visits across the country: "No one was dragged from their homes and put under bright lights. The interviewees were free to talk to us or close the door in our faces."

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, says this case is "especially sensitive" because the Denver police settled a lawsuit with the ACLU of Colorado in the spring of 2003 with an agreement not to spy on Denver dissidents. Silverstein wants to know why two Denver police officers participated in this action.

So does Bardwell.

"The Denver police are not allowed to be spying on us, and yet they were at our house," she says.

Bardwell has since received an e-mail from Lieutenant Stephens of the Denver Police Internal Affairs Bureau.

"I want to assure you that the Denver Police Department takes these types of allegations very seriously," the e-mail reads. "If you feel that the Denver officers acted inappropriately, please contact the Internal Affairs Bureau at any time to discuss the incident."

Bardwell is not sure how she is going to proceed at this point. She says she is still trying to process what happened.

"I was so shocked through the whole thing," she says. "There's definitely a culture among activists of expecting this kind of behavior. But it's a completely different thing when it happens to you."

Tailed by the FBI

The FBI trailed and interrogated three young men from Kirksville, Missouri, in July, and talked to their parents. The activists were then subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury on the very day they were planning to be in Boston for a protest at the Democratic National Convention.

The New York Times had one sentence on this in its pathbreaking August 16 story. Here are the details, according to Denise Lieberman, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, which is representing the three men.

The men are 20, 22, and 24 years old, and they all have attended Truman State University. One is still there.

"In the week leading up to the Democratic National Convention, the parents of each of the three were visited by agents of the FBI identifying themselves as members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force," says Lieberman. "They said they were there to get their sons' current contact information and to ask some questions about their sons' political affiliations."

The three young men, who have not released their names yet, were "visited by an FBI agent in Kirksville, who was accompanied by a local police officer," Lieberman says.

"They were asked three questions: " 'Are you aware of any criminally disruptive activity being planned either for the Democratic National Convention, the Republican National Convention, the Presidential debates, the elections, or any other related event?' 

" 'If you did know, would you tell us?'

" 'Are you aware, if you have such knowledge or were planning on participating in such activities and you don't tell us, that you can be charged with a crime?' "

Lieberman says that each of the young men refused to answer the questions without having an attorney present.

Two things make this case even more alarming than other similar incidents around the country, she says.

The first is that her clients were subpoenaed, and as a consequence could not go to their intended protest.

"On Monday, July 26, my clients received a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury, and at the same time they received a target letter saying they were a target of the investigation," says Lieberman. "They were ordered to appear on Thursday, July 29, which was the same date they were scheduled to appear in Boston for a protest. It certainly had the effect of preventing them from attending the protest."

Lieberman says that neither the subpoena nor the target letter offered specific information about particular incidents of alleged criminal activity. And she said the prosecutor refused to grant her clients an extension.

The second distinctive characteristic of this case, Lieberman says, is that her clients were repeatedly and overtly tailed.

"Our clients were put under 24-hour surveillance," she says. "It began approximately Sunday July 25th. At that point, they all had come to St. Louis. They noticed cars in front of the house where they were staying, at least three at any given time. One was a dark SUV, one was a GMC suburban, one was a silver truck. Sometimes there were other cars. They were there for a period of five days, and they followed them everywhere they went."

Lieberman says her clients would drive around their block four times, and the FBI would be there behind them. Undercover agents also followed them to the grocery store and even to her ACLU office.

"It was very overt," she says. "This was perhaps the most jarring to my clients. It was really, really rattling to them. The agents were making no attempt to keep the surveillance covert. This was having a significant intimidation effect not just on our clients but also on other people in that house. Our clients were afraid to call and meet their girlfriends, because they didn't want their girlfriends followed."

One member of the house who was not involved with the planned protest in Boston "was followed to work at his local grocery store and was taken aside by his supervisor," she says. "This person felt that perhaps his job could be jeopardized."

Lieberman says she is very troubled by the government's tactics.

The use of surveillance and even a subpoena as an apparent tool to prevent people from going to a protest violates the First Amendment, she believes.

"It's one thing if you go to a protest and engage in illegal activity like civil disobedience, where you know you could be subject to arrest. And police have every right if people do that to arrest them," she says. "But it's quite another thing to stop them before the protest and question them and take steps to intimidate them or prevent them from going in the first place."

And the intimidation extended beyond her clients.

"There were about 10 people who were supposed to go with them to Boston, and all of them cancelled," she says. "That makes the chilling effect greater."

Joe Parris, a spokesman for the FBI in Washington, told The New York Times: "The FBI isn't in the business of chilling anyone's First Amendment rights. But criminal behavior isn't covered by the First Amendment. What we're concerned about are injuries to convention participants, injuries to citizens, injuries to police and first responders."

But Lieberman says her clients hadn't engaged in criminal activity and were simply trying to exercise their First Amendment rights.

"The FBI," says Lieberman, "is sending a message not just to those targeted but to those around them: If you are outspoken, an FBI file may be opened on you or you might expect to see an FBI agent knocking on your door."