Inside the Surveillance State: How Peaceful Activists Get Swept Up onto "Terrorist" Watch Lists
Ten Years Later: Surveillance in the "Homeland" is a collaborative project with Truthout and ACLU Massachusetts.
How little - yet how much - has changed in the last 40 years. The COINTELPRO papers sound distinctly 21st century as they detail the monitoring of perceived threats to "national security" by the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency (NSA), Secret Service, and the military, as well as the intelligence bureaucracy's war on First Amendment protest activity.
The Church Committee investigation concluded in 1976 that the "unexpressed major premise of the programs was that a law enforcement agency has the duty to do whatever is necessary to combat perceived threats to the existing social and political order."
In addition to massive surveillance, assassinations and dirty tricks "by any means necessary" included the creation of NSA "watch lists" of Americans ranging "from members of radical political groups, to celebrities, to ordinary citizens involved in protests against their government," with names submitted by the FBI, Secret Service, military, CIA, and Defense Intelligence Agency. The secret lists, which included people whose activities "may result in civil disturbances or otherwise subvert the national security of the US," were used by the NSA to extract information of "intelligence value" from its stream of intercepted communications.
We learned that there was, apparently, no easy way to get off the FBI's "security index." Even after the criteria for fitting the profile of a "subversive" were revised in the mid-1950's, the names of people who no longer fit the definition remained on IBM punchcards, and were retained in field offices as "potential threats." A card would only be destroyed "if the subject agreed to become an FBI source or informant" or in another way indicated a "complete defection from subversive groups."
By 1960, the FBI had compiled 432,000 files on "subversive" individuals and groups, and they were getting hard to handle. The following decade brought the promise of a technological fix. Under the guidance of the attorney general at the time, Ramsey Clark, the FBI explored the potential for "computerizing the master index." The goal of Clark's Interdivision Information Unit was to harness "automatic data processing" to put information about people collected from external and internal sources in a "quickly retrievable form."
Forty years later, the same "by any means necessary" mindset is harnessed to a national surveillance industrial complex that pumps out some 50,000 intelligence reports every day into the FBI's Terrorist Screening Database (which contains over a million names, including aliases). This error-ridden "master list" is not to be confused with the National Counterterrorism Center's Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE)system, which held 640,000 identities in March 2011. There arereported to be about a dozen terrorism watch lists or databases, and a single tip from a credible source is all it takes to get into one or more of them, while there is no reliable way to get out.
Given the legion of local, state and federal agents seeking out harbingers of "terrorist activity," the fact that espousing "radical" beliefs is grist for a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) and the virtually unchecked ability of FBI operatives to spy on groups without suspicion of wrongdoing, it is not surprising that the same kind of groups that were infiltrated and spied on by the FBI, NSA, CIA, and Department of Defense (DoD) under COINTELPRO are featuring in Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) investigations and fusion center data banks. The secrecy shrouding "national security" matters and the blurred jurisdictions that turn FOIA requests into pieces in a "pass the buck" shell game have made it impossible to get a clear picture of the extent of spying on protected First Amendment activity. But leaks and oversight reports indicate that a 21st century Church Committee would find a mention of any group that challenges the status quo somewhere in the vast domestic surveillance labyrinth.
In his 2010 report, "A Review of the FBI's Investigation of Certain Domestic Advocacy Groups," Glenn Fine, the (now retired - and not replaced) inspector general of the Justice Department, concludes that the FBI had "little or no basis" for investigating many advocacy groups and individuals, and that it made false and misleading statements to the public and Congress to justify its surveillance of an antiwar rally organized by a peace and social justice organization, the Thomas Merton Center of Pennsylvania. Not only did it routinely classify actions involving nonviolent civil disobedience as "Acts of Terrorism matters," it also, "relied upon potential crimes that may not commonly be considered 'terrorism' (such as trespassing or vandalism)" to get people placed on watch lists and their travels and interactions tracked.
Around the country, databases have swelled with information about antiwar and other protests that are classified as "potential terrorist activity." Intelligence oversight reports indicate that the Pentagon, which defined protest in training materials as "low-level terrorism activity," monitored and shared intelligence on groups ranging from Alaskans for Peace and Justice to Planned Parenthood, and used Army signals intelligence in Louisiana to intercept civilian cell phone conversations. It was revealed late in 2005 that the DoD had a secret database called Theart and Local Observation Notice (TALON) maintained by its Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) unit. Among its 13,000 reports were dozens detailing antiwar activity, along with photos of protesters. Meetings were sometimes infiltrated and information widely shared among partner agencies. Events classified as "threats" included the gathering of activists at a Quaker meeting house in Lakewood, Florida, to plan a protest of military recruiting at the local high school, a Boston protest outside a military recruiting center and a peace march through the streets of Akron, Ohio, tailed by local police who had been tipped off by the Pentagon.
Although CIFA was disbanded after the extent of its spying was revealed, the TALON database has been preserved and is expected to be part of a new repository of information housed at the Pentagon's Defense Counterintelligence and Human Intelligence Center. A notice in the Federal Register for June 15, 2010, states that the new repository will have a broad domestic and homeland security mandate and will amass personal data, citizenship documentation, biometric data and "reports of investigation, collection, statements of individuals, affidavits, correspondence, and other documentation pertaining to investigative or analytical efforts by the DoD and other US agencies to identify or counter foreign intelligence and terrorist threats."
The Posse Comitatus Act's substantial limitations on the use of the military in domestic law enforcement appear to have all but vanished. Indeed, in Washington State, John Towery - a member of Force Protection Service at Fort Lewis who infiltrated and spied on peace groups in Olympia and shared information with the Army, JTTF, the FBI, local police departments and the state fusion center - is being sued by groups claiming his undercover surveillance violated the Act. Adocument leaked by WikiLeaks outlines how a "fusion cell" in a military police garrison integrated with local, county, regional, state and federal law enforcement can avoid the usual constraints on military intelligence by operating "under the auspice and oversight of the police discipline and standards." In the words of former Olympia City Council member T.J. Johnson, who was one of the people spied on by Towery, "The militarization of domestic law enforcement is one of the more disturbing trends in recent years."
Leaks from fusion centers reveal that peace groups share a place on surveillance databases with environmental groups, animal rights groups, student groups, anti-death penalty organizations, Muslim organizations, conspiracy theorists, Ron Paul supporters, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Nation of Islam and "Black Extremists." The Virginia Fusion Center cited various historically black colleges and universities as potential "radicalization nodes" for terrorists. The Maryland State Police, which works with the FBI as part of a JTTF and shares information with the state's fusion center, infiltrated protest activity, kept error-ridden "terrorist" files on activists and was notified by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) about what groups should be monitored. Bette Hoover, a retired nurse who is a grandmother and Quaker antiwar activist, was surprised when documents came to light listing her as a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and direct action group The Ruckus Society - organizations she never belonged to - and placing her at demonstrations she had never attended. She now understands why she receives special scrutiny at airports.
Given the enormous dimensions of the secretive echo chamber in which flawed information is disseminated, it is difficult to see how the record can ever be set straight. Once a person is in a database, there seems to be no more inclination to delete all traces of that individual (assuming this is even possible) than to remove an IBM punch card from J. Edgar Hoover's security index. The FBI today wants to keep all Suspicious Activity Reports in its eGuardian database, on the grounds that even if there is no connection to terrorism or crime today, one may become clear tomorrow as it continues to add information to a person's profile and mine information about their associations.
In the age of the Total Information Awareness program, there appears to be no end to the appetite for data to be stored and mined, and all sorts of agencies want a share of the action. There was little attempt to rein in the NSA after whistleblowersRussell Tice and Thomas Tamm revealed an "overcollection" of data of staggering proportions through the Agency's access to the phone calls, text messages, faxes and emails affecting the communications of "all Americans" - including Bill Clinton. Data captured through the NSA's warrantless surveillance program has reportedly been systematically archived for data mining purposes.
The US Joint Special Operations Command is meanwhile establishing a mega fusion center at a secret address near the Pentagon which will serve as "the offense end of counterterrorism, tracking and targeting terrorist threats that have surfaced in recent years" and advising domestic law enforcement "in dealing with suspected terrorists inside the US." It will feature a cloud-computing network combining "all elements of US national security, from the eavesdropping capabilities of the National Security Agency to Homeland Security's border-monitoring databases."
Not to be outdone, the FBI has erected a giant Investigative Data Warehouse (IDW) containing 1.5 billion records and counting - much of it classified - including information collected through nearly 300,000 National Security Letters, criminal records, financial records, intelligence reports, gang information, terrorist information, open source data and more. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, whoseFreedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation has brought the data trove to light - the "future of the IDW is data mining" as the FBI uses "link analysis" and "pattern analysis" in the hunt for "pre-crime."
The neverending hunger for data may be one reason why the FBI, in late 2010, raided the homes and seized computers, cell phones and files belonging to peace and justice activists in Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan. Twenty-three of them have been issued with grand jury subpoenas, some for allegedly giving "material support" to a foreign terrorist organization by meeting with groups in Colombia and Palestine.
"We're conflating proper dissent and terrorism," warned former FBI agent and whistleblower Coleen Rowley:
A secretive, unaccountable, post 9/11 homeland security apparatus has increasingly turned inward on American citizens. The evidence includes everything from controversial airport body scanners to the FBI's raids last September on antiwar activists' homes ... Agents are now given a green light, for instance, to check off "statistical achievements" by sending well-paid manipulative informants into mosques and peace groups. Forgotten are worries about targeting and entrapping people not predisposed to violence.... The massive and largely irrelevant data collection now occurring only adds hay to the haystack, making it even harder to see patterns and anticipate events. "Top Secret America" needs to ask itself who is more guilty of furnishing "material aid to terrorism: - its own operatives, or the activists and protesters it so wrongheadedly targets.