Human Rights

Keeping Tabs on the Peaceniks

What are political and activist groups like Indymedia and Food Not Bombs doing on the FBI's Terrorist Watch List?
More evidence that the U.S. government is justifying surveillance of political dissidence under the guise of monitoring "terrorism" has recently come to light. Early this March an FBI agent's presentation at the University of Texas law school listed Indymedia, Food Not Bombs, the Communist Party of Texas and "anarchists" as groups on the FBI's "Terrorist Watch List" for central Texas.

On March 8, 2006, FBI Supervisory Senior Resident Agent G. Charles Rasner, delivered a guest lecture before professor Ronald Sievert's U.S. Law and National Security class of approximately 100 students. Accompanying his lecture was an "unclassified" PowerPoint presentation titled "Counter-Terrorism Efforts in Texas."

According to UT law student Elizabeth Wagoner's account of Rasner's lecture on Austin Indymedia:

"On a list of approximately ten groups, Food Not Bombs was listed seventh. Indymedia was listed tenth, with a reference specifically to IndyConference 2005. The Communist Party of Texas also made the list. Rasner explained that these groups could have links to terrorist activity. He noted that peaceful-sounding group names could cover more violent extremist tactics."

Wagoner has made a Freedom of Information Act request for Rasner's PowerPoint presentation.

Food Not Bombs (disclosure: the author used to participate in an Austin FNB group) is a moniker for volunteer-run groups that distribute unused vegetarian food from grocery stores and restaurants for free to the general population. Its name stems from a belief that excessive military spending could be redirected to provide food for the hungry. Indymedia is a decentralized grassroots online media outlet, which provides an alternative to the mainstream media coverage.

A self-described libertarian law student who also attended the class wrote on his blog that this list "got many in class riled up."

Rene Salinas, a spokesperson for the FBI San Antonio field office, said that the FBI "doesn't put people on the Terror Watch List for grins." He said that a group has to act or participate in a group connected with terrorism. He declined to say whether any of the groups Rasner mentioned have connections to terrorism or how terrorism is defined. He did say that the Terror Watch List helps keep different law enforcement agencies informed about suspect characters. Salinas described a scenario where the list could help a police officer who pulled over an individual on the list for a traffic violation identify a person that "we might just want to question."

Since 9/11, government surveillance of domestic organizations has increased, raising questions that legitimate political activity and civil liberties are being violated under a sweeping and unjustifiably broad definition of terrorism. Legislative and administrative changes, notably the Patriot Act, have given law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, broadened power to investigate and monitor individuals and organizations. In response to concerns from a bipartisan group of legislators, minor changes were made to the Patriot Act when Congress reauthorized it last month.

At the UT-Austin campus alone, there has been other evidence of government surveillance of political organizations. A 2003 FOIA request by UT Watch uncovered that the University of Texas-Austin participates in the Austin Joint Terrorism Task Force, made up of an FBI liason, and members of the University of Texas Police Department and Austin Police Department. In 2004, FBI agents questioned a UT student after he made a state open records request to UT for information about tunnels underneath the UT campus. The agents asked the student questions such as "Have you ever thought of joining any student activist organizations, like UT Watch?" (Disclosure: The author has been involved with UT Watch.)

Such surveillance has occurred at other campuses as well. For example, the ACLU obtained a FBI report entitled "Domestic Terrorism Symposium" (PDF), which mentions Direct Action, an anti-war group at Michigan State University, and BAMN (By Any Means Necessary), a national group with a chapter at Michigan State that defends affirmative action.

Also this Month, the ACLU released documents showing that Pennsylvania law enforcement was surveilling an anti-war group because of its political activities. Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the ACLU of Pennsylvania obtained documents revealing that the FBI was monitoring gatherings at the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice in Pittsburgh. According to the FBI's own description (PDF), the Thomas Merton Center "is a left-wing organization advocating, among many political causes, pacificism." However, the center is more of a gathering place and resource center "for over 30 different projects," according to the center's website.

Post-9/11 government spying operations are reminiscent of those uncovered by 1970s congressional investigations such as the FBI's COINTELPRO program and the NSA's Shamrock and Minaret programs. Congress found that civil liberties and legitimate political activity were suppressed by the government and sought to place these programs under a modicum of oversight to reign in excesses.
Nick Schwellenbach is a writer based in Washington, D.C.
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