45 Years After COINTELPRO FBI Continues to Monitor Activists


Chip Gibbons, Legal Fellow, says over 60 national groups have signed onto a letter calling on the House and Senate Judiciary Committees to investigate FBI and DHS’s monitoring of activists

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Story Transcript

EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore. March 8 marks the 45th anniversary of the break-in at the FBI field office by eight peace activists that exposed COINTELPRO, the FBI counterintelligence program. It was used to infiltrate and neutralize activities of groups such as the Black Panther Party, the Social Workers Party, among others. Operations were shut down in 1971, and were criticized for violating the First Amendment rights of speech.

VOICEOVER: In other news, the FBI has reported preparing to shut down some of the 500 small agencies it maintains around the country because of security reasons. Last month more than 1,000 documents were stolen from the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania.

CONWAY: Today, however, activist groups are still facing surveillance from the FBI. Over 60 national groups have signed into a letter calling on the House and Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate the FBI and the DHS monitoring of movements like Black Lives Matter, School of Americas Watch, the anti-Keystone pipeline group.

Joining us to talk about this is Chip Gibbons. He is a legal fellow at the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and Defending Dissent Foundation, where he heads the Activism Is Not Terrorism Campaign. Chip, what type of groups are being monitored, and how do we know this for sure?

CHIP GIBBONS: The groups that are being monitored shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s familiar with the history of the FBI’s almost 100-year now war on dissent. It’s racial justice groups like the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s economic justice groups like the Occupy Wall Street movement, and it is peace and anti-war groups like the School of the Americas Watch, which has for over, I think almost 20 years now, had an annual vigil outside of Fort Benning, Georgia, where the U.S. military trains death squads that go into Latin America and commit horrendous atrocities.

We know that this is going on because we’ve been able to FOIA it. Unlike the activists who had to break into the FBI building to liberate the files, we’re now able to file a FOIA request about these different groups, and they send us stuff back sometimes. Of course, there’s always a lot of redactions, and there’s always a lot of, you know, pages that are withheld. But from these, from these documents we can get a pretty clear picture of what’s going on. Of course, we’d like a clearer picture, which is part of the reason why we need Congress to step in and investigate.

The types of things that we’re aware of is that with Occupy Wall Street, the FBI using its counterterrorism authorities actually begin monitoring them well before the first protest in Zuccotti Park, and well before the first protest warned businesses that they might be protested by the Occupy movement. This monitoring was not just limited to the New York group. They monitored Occupy Wall Street groups all over the country. In Jacksonville, Florida they produced a memo stating that Occupy groups were spreading throughout Florida, because there’s a high unemployment rate in Florida, which shows that they’re aware of the sort of socioeconomic conditions that produce social movements.

Another fun fact about the FBI’s Occupy spying is that they were aware of a plan in Houston by individuals to assassinate Occupy Wall Street members with sniper rifles, and never told the group about that. And another thing that we know, and this actually came from a labor dispute between labor groups and Walmart, was that when Walmart heard that Occupy activists might be protesting them, they contacted the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.

And the Occupy case is in no way unique. We know of School of the Americas Watch, beginning in 2005, over a decade they spied on the group, even though they acknowledged they have peaceful intentions. Just like Occupy Wall Street. They said this was a peaceful group. But they kept surveilling them in case there might be terrorist activity. And it’s a little bit strange to say that a group is peaceful, but to want to surveil them for counterterrorism purposes. And with Black Lives Matter, most of the surveillance has been done by the Department of Homeland Security, and this has been received through a various FOIA request from the Intercept, from Vice News, that has shown the Department of Homeland Security in the guise of collecting situational awareness has done things like put together maps of Black Lives Matter protest marches. They’ve also gathered information on entirely non-political events like the DC Funk Parade. And they’ve been monitoring social media accounts of prominent activists.

And with the Keystone pipeline activists, we know about the FBI surveillance not only because of FOIA documents that prove this, but because early in 2015 in a couple states, FBI agents were showing up at the doors of activists, knocking on their doors, saying hey, we don’t suspect you for crime, we’re not doing a criminal investigation. We just want to learn more about your movement, which is not what the FBI is supposed to be doing at all. After COINTELPRO, they’re not supposed to be, you know, learning more about movements. They’re supposed to be investigating criminal activity or terrorism, or national security. Although, of course, very little has actually changed with the FBI since the ’70s. And they continuously continued on their political policing just using different authorities to do so.

CONWAY: Okay. You’ve mentioned that the FBI cannot discern between activism and terrorism, and it shows us that they think dissent is the enemy. Can you elaborate on where you draw the line between dissent and terrorism?

GIBBONS: Well, I think that there’s a line to be drawn there, but I think the line is drawn in the FBI’s own FOIA documents. When they’re looking at a counterterrorism investigation into Occupy Wall Street, they repeatedly mention it’s a nonviolent movement. When they’re looking at the School of the Americas Watch, they continuously stated that the group had peaceful intentions. So then if they’re not a violent movement, if they have peaceful intentions and all they’re doing is protesting, that’s very clearly to me dissent, and that should not warrant counterterrorism surveillance, unless you think that activism is for some reason synonymous with terrorism, or if you think that activism is likely to lead to terrorism.

So either the, my friends at the J. Edgar Hoover building, who are only a couple of blocks away from where I am in DC right now, have no idea the difference between activism or terrorism, or they think that they’re one and the same, and they’re doing the same thing they’ve always done, which is serve as the political police of the United States of America.

CONWAY: So have things not changed since the ’60s, when COINTELPRO expanded its surveillance into domestic activist groups? In fact, I’m a victim of that particular program, myself. When I was a member of the Black Panther Party, they actually put agent provocateurs in our organization, and created all kinds of activities that ended up destroying the Black Panther Party. Can you talk–lastly, can you talk about the letter that’s initiated by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, and the Defending Dissent Foundation to investigate the FBI? What do you hope would be the outcome of this?

GIBBONS: Well, to answer your first question, I’m always hesitant to say that things haven’t changed at all, because a lot of social movements have put a lot of pressure, and they’ve won important concessions. However, in some ways they haven’t changed. And the thing to remember is that while after the Church committee the FBI is no longer supposed to be investigating subversive activities or subversive groups, they’re supposed to be investigating crime or counterterrorism, they still do that. The groups they investigate under their counterterrorism powers are racial justice groups, anti-war groups, economic justice groups, the same groups that Hoover was targeting as subversives.

And in the case of the Black Panther Party, they actually carried on their surveillance of them after COINTELPRO ended under their new powers. So while the FBI no longer is tasked with investigating “subversives”, or “radicals”, they’ve continuously used their counterterrorism authority to spy on political groups. And they always go, oh, we don’t do political surveillance. We do counterterrorism surveillance. But if all, if many of the groups you’re looking at are just nonviolent political groups, it’s very clear they’re doing political surveillance.

Another example of the continuation is that, you know, the Communist party was the first group targeted under COINTELPRO. And after the new reforms were put in place, the FBI continued to spy on the Communist party, only now as, like, a foreign counterintelligence espionage investigation. And DHS has a similar talking point. You know, they say, we’re not doing political surveillance, we’re doing situational awareness. But if that situational awareness is the movements, locations, and times of Black Lives Matter protests, the situation you’re being aware of is dissent.

So this, there’s obviously been, you know, a significant number of revelations since COINTELPRO. There’s been significant other attempts at oversight. In 1989 the Senate Intelligence Committee did an investigation into the FBI’s spying under its counterterrorism authority in the committee in solidarity with the people of El Salvador. In 2010 the Inspector General did a report about FBI counterterrorism investigations into PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Catholic Workers’ movement.

So our letter is looking at this history and saying, you know, there’s clearly a problem. There’s been multiple attempts at reform, and they haven’t worked. And what we want Congress to do, specifically the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, is to have another investigation, not just a single hearing, but actually have an investigation like they did in the ’80s when it turned out the FBI was spying on Central American solidarity groups, and release a substantial public report that answers five questions.

The first question is why was School of the Americas Watch, Black Lives Matter, the Keystone pipeline groups, and Occupy Wall Street selected for surveillance? The second question we want them to answer is why did they keep spying on these groups even though they continuously said they were peaceful groups. The third question we want to have answered is what role does, you know, local law enforcement play in working with the DHS and FBI to spy on dissent. And we also want to know what other groups were potentially spied on, what other nonviolent political groups has the DHS and the FBI been monitoring and infiltrating. And the final thing we want this report to answer is what type of meaningful reforms can be put into place so we’re not back here five years from now talking about this issue again, which has been the case pretty much for the last 40 years.

CONWAY: Yes. And you’ve mentioned the sanctuary movement. And if I remember correctly, they spied on that movement for a number of years and never found one criminal activity at all. And I’m wondering whether or not the Patriot Act and the National Defense of America Act, those now, the legal standards that the FBI and Homeland Security is using to spy on these groups?

GIBBONS: I mean, the USA Patriot Act gave the FBI expanded authorities to conduct searches. It expanded the number of national security letters. But the type of surveillance that we’re talking about and we’re seeing is pretty much just the FBI using its counterterrorism authorities, which it has, to infiltrate and monitor these groups.

So I mean, even before the Patriot–and I don’t want to diminish just how draconian and anti-civil [libertarian] the Patriot Act was. But even before the Patriot Act was passed, the FBI was doing this. They use their counterterrorism authorities to investigate groups that any rational person would say has no nexus to terrorism. And the only logical explanation is that they’re singling out these groups because of their political viewpoint.

CONWAY: Okay. Well, thank you for keeping us informed, and please let us know if other developments occur. And thank you for joining me.

GIBBONS: Thank you for having me on, Eddie.

CONWAY: Okay. And thank you for joining the Real News.


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