The FBI Is Still Hunting For Ways To Call US Activists Terrorists
The FBI wants you to believe they stopped spying on anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist activists. They haven't.
The FBI wants you to believe they stopped spying on anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist activists. They haven't.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Jacqueline Lugm…: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network. Lest we ever forget that the Federal Bureau of Investigation only exists to investigate and nullify threats to the US capitalists and white supremacist hegemony in this country, a new investigation by the Intercept reveals that the Bureau has yet again targeted a group of American peace activists and branded them as terrorists. Here to explain the latest episode in the ongoing saga of the FBI’s program of COINTELPRO that they want you to think is over, but is not, is Chip Gibbons. Chip is a journalist and researcher. His work has appeared in Jacobin, In These Times, and the Nation magazines. He’s also the policy director of Defending Rights & Dissent, where he authored the report Still Spying on Dissent: Ihe Enduring Problem of FBI First Amendment Abuse. And you should follow Chip on [email protected] Chip, thanks so much for joining me.
Chip Gibbons: Thank you for having me. I’m glad to be back on The Real News. The first time I was on The Real News, I was also talking about the FBI as it was the anniversary of the revelation of COINTELPRO, so.
Jacqueline Lugm…: So your article in The Intercept focuses on an investigation into the FBI’s investigation into a Palestinian solidarity group. One investigation happened in St. Louis, so tell us about the group they were looking at and what they do.
Chip Gibbons: Sure. So all the way back in 2015, but I only just got the documents, thanks to a lawsuit. I filled out a FOIA request looking for FBI surveillance into different pro-Palestinian groups. They came back, they had a large amount of documents about the International Solidarity Movement, which is a nonviolent group, twice nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize that encourages Americans and other internationals to go to the occupied Palestinian territories and engage in direct action against the occupation. The FBI, these hundreds of pages of files we got through [inaudible 00:02:19] a lot of them and redact it more. Show multiple terrorism investigations into this nonviolent group. They show a use of physical surveillance, confidential informants, dozens of field offices involved. A very mysterious day cable. I’ll talk about more later. And they came up with nothing. And there’s two major investigations we can make sense of.
The first one be one in St. Louis like you mentioned. And what happened was 2003, 2004, a group of peace activists including a Holocaust survivor, Heidi Epstein, went to the occupied territories on an ISM delegation. One of the activists was injured when the IDF opened up fire on a peaceful Palestinian protest. Heidi Epstein, the Holocaust survivor, when she tried to leave Israel, was subjected to a humiliating strip search. And instead of looking at these deprivations of the rights of Americans, these St. Louis FBI, after meeting with a source of unknown reliability, decides to assess these two individuals for terrorism based on a claim that they found inside an FBI database that some ISM associates had sympathies for more radical groups. And they investigated these two activists, it is not clear why they only singled two out for two years. And with one of the activists, they got the Communication Analysis Unit of the FBI, which was formed after 9/11 to analyze call records and has been repeatedly found itself in scandals.
My favorite scandal involved in this unit was the inspector general found. They had three employees from the telecom… Had employees in three different telecom companies in the office with the FBI who had access to telecom records. The FBI’s only supposed to be able to get with a subpoena or a national security letter and those employees were letting the FBI agents take sneak peeks at the records.
Jacqueline Lugm…: Wait, hold on, hold on.
Chip Gibbons: Yes.
Jacqueline Lugm…: Let’s be clear on what you just said.
Chip Gibbons: Oh yeah, yeah.
Jacqueline Lugm…: Let’s be clear-
Chip Gibbons: Yeah.
Jacqueline Lugm…: … so people understand what this unit of the FBI was doing. They were only supposed to receive copies of phone records of American citizens via a subpoena.
Chip Gibbons: Or national security letter.
Jacqueline Lugm…: Or what was that?
Chip Gibbons: National security letter.
Jacqueline Lugm…: Or a national security letter, but employees of the telecommunications agencies were taking pages of documents of people’s phone records and letting the FBI look at them.
Chip Gibbons: Well, they had it all on the computer in front of them. They had two different computers, one with the… One for their telecom company job and one with the FBI. And these people would just write a name or a number on a piece of paper and they would peek over the shoulder or whatever. And that’s just one of the times the inspector general found, they were improperly accessing phone records. In another circumstance they are found to be making false exigent circumstance claims saying they were going to get a subpoena or a national security letter, but there was an exigent circumstance and they needed the information right now. And it turned out in many of the cases, they were not exigent circumstances and sometimes they never went to even got the subpoena. So this is extremely scandal-filled unit during this time.
This is back during the Bush administration. And at the same time we know this unit pulled one of the activist’s phone records and from the documents we have, it said after analyzing his phone records, one of the numbers, presumably somebody he called, or somebody he called, called is linked to a highly classified CIA cable. The FBI though was never supposed to have access to that cable. The CIA won’t give it to them. It’s kind of funny, kind of scary. But the end result is after two years of investigation, the FBI concludes, neither of the two subjects broke any US laws, neither threatened US national security, and by all evidence they were engaged in Palestinian activism. And I want to stress as someone who reads a lot of these documents and looked at them with a former FBI agent, it’s extremely rare that the FBI will use that kind of exonerating language, so that shows how extreme this case is, but it’s part of a larger pattern.
The FBI was doing lots of ISM investigations. Three months after the St. Louis investigation, the Los Angeles Field office, with the permission of the National headquarters opens a domestic… The St. Louis one was an international terrorist investigation, opens a domestic terrorism investigation into the ISM as a terrorist enterprise. And they have not only approval from National, they get to go to Washington and have a coordinating meeting. There’s at least 10 different field offices involved. Local police are involved. You read through these documents and the types of things they say are things like, “Oh, because they have anti-capitalists and anti-globe philosophy.” I assume anti-globe means anti-globalization and not like Flat Earth, who know with the FBI. And because they’re sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, they could be coerced into becoming terrorists. And think about what that means. That is criminalizing a First Amendment protected point-of-view. They’re saying if you don’t like the real bank, if you don’t like capitalism, if you think the Palestinians shouldn’t have to live under apartheid, that makes you more likely than someone else to become a terrorist, and therefore we should investigate you.
Jacqueline Lugm…: So let me interrupt just for a second here, Chip, and to be clear, this is a separate investigation-
Chip Gibbons: Yes.
Jacqueline Lugm…: … from the first investigation-
Chip Gibbons: Yes.
Jacqueline Lugm…: … into a few individuals in St. Louis. This investigation was of the national organization.
Chip Gibbons: Yes.
Jacqueline Lugm…: Because it, the FBI wasn’t satisfied that the two individuals were not actual terrorists.
Chip Gibbons: So now-
Jacqueline Lugm…: They had to, they’re trying to make a case that the organization is a terrorist organization?
Chip Gibbons: It seems like they were started completely independently of each other. It doesn’t seem like St. Louis knew what Los Angeles was doing, and Los Angeles [inaudible 00:08:51] until much later on. At which point National sends a memo to both offices after the LA investigation’s been closed and someone just writes on the memo. I have a copy from both the LA file and the St. Louis file. And on the LA file, someone just wrote on it, “Closed?” And another thing, in the case files for the two St. Louis activists, in both of their case files, an FBI agent on the copy guy has handwritten in the margins, “No evidence, no leads.” But they could pull the phone records and run it against the CIA cable. But no one knows what it is, that’s too secret even for the FBI. Going back to the LA investigation, about six months into it, the documents show, they’re investigating them in part because they believe they’re violating the Neutrality Act of 1794?
Jacqueline Lugm…: And what is that? What is the Neutrality Act of 1794.
Chip Gibbons: That was put in place by George Washington because he was concerned that American support for the French Revolution could lead us into a war with Britain. It makes it a crime to take up arms against a foreign prince or dominion. That’s all it is. It mentions foreign princes or dominions that the US is not at war with. You can’t raise a hostile ship against a foreign prince or dominion on US soil. You can’t go and damage property. But infamously, this law has been extremely selectively enforced because your listeners are probably sitting there thinking right now, “Hey, what about the Bay of Pigs Invasion?”
Jacqueline Lugm…: Yes.
Chip Gibbons: “What about the Contras?
Jacqueline Lugm…: Yes.
Chip Gibbons: What about all the far-right groups? And Robert F. Kennedy was attorney general, and he actually had to give a public statement saying the Neutrality Act does not apply to the Bay of Pigs investigation because it doesn’t apply to people who leave the US to go and fight for a cause in which they will believe, which is totally [crosstalk 00:10:44] . And then the case of the Contras, these are people who are trying to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua and they attack civilian infrastructure like healthcare clinics, like adult literacy centers. You can argue whether or not the word terrorism has any meaning whatsoever. But if it did have meaning, Contras trying to topple government by attacking healthcare clinic. That strikes me as terrorist.
But in spite of this, they use this to go after nonviolent peaceful activists who are engaging in direct action in the occupied Palestinian territories. And I want to point out, the US isn’t exactly neutral in the Middle East either. They’re not exactly endangering. It was like, “Oh, we were always neutral in the Middle East until these crazy activists came along and got us involved.” It’s like, “No, we sent millions of dollars to an apartheid state.”
Jacqueline Lugm…: Absolutely. I mean, Martin Luther King Jr. himself said that the United States is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. Now I want to ask you, Chip, what was the scope of this investigation from LA? Because the investigation in St. Louis was focused on a few people. What was the scope of this investigation in LA, and how long did it go on?
Chip Gibbons: It went on from about 2004 to 2005, so less long than the St. Louis one. But in most of the documents are heavily redacted, but it is massive. In the LA files, we see documents from Chicago, we see documents from Dallas, we see documents from all over the country saying we went and did physical surveillance. We went and did, talked to an informant. We had LA, we had Chicago police helping us with this.
And like I said, National headquarters signs off on the investigation and they have a coordinating meeting at the J. Edgar Hoover building in Washington D.C. with the National Terrorism Team, the LA Field office and two different field offices in Texas. And then while they’re in D.C., They go and meet with the Baltimore Field office. So there’s at least 10 different field offices involved, to say nothing of local police. One of the documents I saw mentions as an accomplishment, that they were briefing the California highway patrol on the investigation. I guess, who enforces Neutrality Act, the California highway patrol. So massively sprawling investigation comes up with nothing, nothing,
Jacqueline Lugm…: Nothing.
Chip Gibbons: Nothing.
Jacqueline Lugm…: The result of this massive investigation was-
Chip Gibbons: Nothing at all, not a single thing, no, that we know of.
Jacqueline Lugm…: So now we have two investigations into this organization. One focusing on people, one focusing widely on the organization on a national scale. Comes up with no incriminating, anything to suggest that these people involved in the organization, or the organization itself are anything other than what they say they are, a nonviolent organization advocating for solidarity with the Palestinian people. And that’s great for the organization and those people who were investigated. But what has the result of that investigation done to the individuals who found out they were being investigated? And then I need you to explain what this means about the FBI and how it views domestic dissent still in this country today?
Chip Gibbons: Sure. I mean, I think the thing is that many activists anticipate unfortunately that they’re going to be spied on by the FBI, given their 110-year legacy as the political police in this country. And as a result, many of the activists I spoke to, Brian Tyler [inaudible 00:14:42], one of the activists mentioned in the article had gotten a voicemail from the FBI. Another ISM activist, who I was in conversation with earlier this week, she actually has been spoken to the FBI’s as recently as 2015, which isn’t even in these documents. So there’s clearly more.
Nonetheless, it’s still very corrosive to our democracy to have people be spied on. So the thing about the FBI is they’re not just a domestic law enforcement agency, they’re also a domestic intelligence agency. The very first intelligence division started within the Bureau of Investigation, which is a precursor of the FBI, was during the First Red Scare. It was headed up by J. Edgar Hoover, and it was initially called the Radical Division because they were rounding up radicals during the Palmer raids. They quickly changed the name to General Intelligence Division, but this type of political policing is hardwired into the DNA of the FBI.
Jacqueline Lugm…: And I didn’t want to ask this question until we got to the end because I want people to understand that the FBI operates under a specific ideology in this country. The reason it targets organizations and individuals that express a particularly anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, anti-racist view politically is because the FBI is indeed influenced by very right-wing views. What were some of the reasons, or some of the so-called evidence that the FBI pointed to in the reasoning it gave for investigating some of these people in this organization? And these sources that were very shady.
Chip Gibbons: In both investigations, we see stuff from FrontPage Magazine, which was a very notorious Bush era, it might still exist, Bush era thing from David Horowitz criticized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as sort of a sphere of Islamophobia. It was all about trying to link anti-war activists to other people who were bad. And in the LA investigation, in one of the statements or one of the bits of evidence to continue for their six months. They cite to two different FrontPage Magazine articles.
And the one is just filled with blatant falsehoods that actually contradicts stuff on the state department website, right? Like they talk about some sort of ISM activist who was shot by the IDF, IDF sniper eventually court-martialed so that’s later on. So it’s bad if even the IDF and they’re just making things up about him saying, “Oh, we don’t know, maybe he was in uniform, maybe he was shooting at the IDF.” And I went on the state department website and read the human rights report for the occupied Palestinian territories for that year. And sure enough, it mentions him. He was, and that’s not the story. He was just shot as a civilian.
So just stuff that’s easily debunked and shouldn’t be taken seriously. But this is a continuous problem for the FBI. We know that in the 1980s when they were looking at Central American solidarity activists, they were looking at stuff from the John Birch society. We know they’re black and identity extremism prosecution more recently, or the instigating thing was something on Infowars, the website from Alex Jones. The government thing, juice boxes to make the frogs gay. You know that sort of high level of analysis. And this is what they’re reading and making investigative decisions based on. And I also think we have to understand that the FBI acts in ideological ways as well. You mentioned COINTELPRO at the beginning and COINTELPRO is just one small part of the larger sort of the FBI surveillance.
It actually wasn’t even a surveillance program at all. How the Church Committee, not me, the Church Committee described it was that it was a covert action. A domestic covert action aimed at protecting the status quo. And the reason why COINTELPRO was started in 1956 was because the FBI recognized that they didn’t have a way to prosecute members of the communist party. So it’s literally was a program to neutralize speech that was protected by the First Amendment, by people who had not committed any sort of other crimes. So and there’s still defending the status quo. They might not be doing the COINTELPRO style covert actions. They might just be doing the surveillance, not just surveillance, it’s still very bad. But there’s still acting in defense of the status quo, that’s what the FBI was founded to do.
That’s why J. Edgar Hoover headed up a radical division rounding up people during the Palmer raids. On the date of the Palmer raids was the first anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. You know, just to make sure it was really on the nose. Radical, so he goes and rounds up people on the anniversary-
Jacqueline Lugm…: Rounds up the radicals.
Chip Gibbons: Yeah, yeah. On the Bolshevik and COINTELPRO, a domestic covert action to just a few years after the Church Committee, they’re spying on the committee in solidarity to people in El Salvador in the run up to the first Gulf war. They go and visit Arab Americans at their homes randomly. There’s a whole bunch of stuff coming out as part of a documentary filmmaker who made a movie called the Don’t Want to be Watched, showing throughout the Clinton years. They were spying on Arab and Muslim neighborhoods in mass surveillance. And then just everything that happens after 9/11, where we know they’re spying on Inspector General’s Reports, spying on Greenpeace, Catholic workers. And then how many stories like this one do we keep seeing? We see FOIA documents show X Group is spied on. So it’s very much the norm, unfortunately.
Jacqueline Lugm…: So Chip, how do us radicals and our radical friends who are watching, how do we respond to this while continuing our activities to challenge the status quo? How do we challenge an intelligence and surveillance apparatus that masks itself as a law enforcement agency? That really exists to thwart radical freedom movements in this country? How do we challenge this? What do we do?
Chip Gibbons: Yeah, sure. So I think it’s important we don’t let the FBI scare us into silence, right? We should never give up our voice to the FBI. That’s what they would like. But we also should be aware that the FBI is probably watching. We should be aware that they send informants in that do bad things or try to get us to agree to do things that are foolish, first of all. But to entrap us basically, [inaudible 00:21:46].
If somebody suggests you do something illegal and foolish, you should, whether or not that person’s an FBI informant or not, kick them out of your life. And I think we should be demanding some congressional action. The FBI or the Bureau of Investigation was created under Theodore Roosevelt while Congress was on a recess. To this day, they have no legislative charter. After the Church Committee, they let the Attorney General make rules for them and as you can imagine, right-wing attorney generals have made those rules less stringent. Of the disturbing thing is that these investigations happen 2004 to 2006, the FBI rules much more stringent than they are now. So right? Like George W Bush’s lame duck attorney general who literally Obama is elected, but not yet president, puts out new FBI guidelines. They don’t allow for the first time since the Church Committee, the FBI, to investigate people, doing so-called assessments without any sort of factual predicate of a crime or national security threat.
So these are investigations that took place under the old standards that required facts. Obviously facts that are not that high of a standard for the FBI, FBI facts, if you will. But nonetheless, why is that allowed? Why didn’t Eric Holder rescind them? Was he too busy? He wasn’t too busy prosecuting Wall Street bankers or Bush era torturers.
Jacqueline Lugm…: He certainly was not.
Chip Gibbons: He’s not doing that. Where is Congress? Congress could at anytime time now put a charter together. After the Central American solidarity investigations, the Senate did a full investigation. They made the General Accountability Office review FBI international terrorism investigations broadly. And a member of Congress proposed a bill repeatedly between 1988 and 1994, I believe, called the FBI First Amendment Protection Act, which would have put some real reforms on it, never passed. Interesting story, when Nancy Pelosi first comes to Congress, she’s a cosponsor of it. Maybe someone should remind her of that. So there’re things that could be done, but they’re not.
Jacqueline Lugm…: So the moral of the story, friends is continue to be radical, continue to fight to uphold and exercise your First Amendment rights. Do not let the FBI bully you into silence and continue to fight for justice and peace. Chip Gibbons, thank you so much for joining me to talk about this ongoing issue with the FBI. We appreciate your work very much.
Chip Gibbons: Thank you for having me back on. It’s always a pleasure to be on The Real News, one of my favorite programs.
Jacqueline Lugm…: Thank you so much. You are one of our favorite, favorite authors and we enjoy and really appreciate the work you do. And we appreciate you for watching. Thank you so much for being a viewer for The Real News Network. This is Jacquelyn Luqman from the Belly of the Beast, Washington D.C.