SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
On Wednesday, documents obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund revealed that for a decade now the FBI has been using its counterterrorism authority to track and monitor a non-violent human rights group, the School of the Americas Watch. SOA Watch aims to close the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, which is known for training many of the military leaders and dictators in Latin America responsible for massacres of dissidents. This isn’t the first time the Partnership for Civil Justice fund exposed the FBI surveillance on domestic social movements and human rights groups such as Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements.
Joining us now to discuss this is Hendrick Voss. He is joining us from Washington, DC. Hendrick is a national organizer with the School of Americas Watch. Thank you so much for joining us, Hendrick.
HENDRICK VOSS: Yes, thank you much for having me.
PERIES: So the documents show that ten years ago the FBI acknowledged that the activities of the SOA Watch are indeed peaceful. So why do they continue and persist surveilling the group?
VOSS: It’s, yeah. I think that’s a very interesting part of the document, that over and over the FBI is actually stating that it’s a peaceful, non-violent protest movement. But still, year after year, they kept surveilling us, they kept monitoring the activities of SOA Watch. And it’s, it very much unmasks the FBI’s activities as political police, that they were going after us because School of the Americas Watch is questioning the status quo that is allowing the United States to train repressive foreign militaries who go back to Latin America to kill their own people. So it’s very much the political activity that we are doing that is being observed, that is being spied upon by the FBI.
And it’s also that the–it’s not just the FBI, but also in the files that we received we see that the FBI is collaborating also with a military intelligence and with local law enforcement. So that also is, the military has information on the protest, and it’s also actively involved in surveillance of the yearly protest that we have at the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia. And for us it is, it is outrageous, because we are a non-violent political movement. We are trying to change the status quo politically. And with our, with civil disobedience, with protests, and with First Amendment protected activities. So therefore the FBI should have no business in surveilling our movement or surveilling any social justice movement within the United States.
PERIES: So Hendrick, how does this affect what you do and what other human rights and non-violent groups in the U.S. who are organizing on political fronts of this sort, as you do?
VOSS: I think it definitely can have a chilling effect on people when they see, when they come out to speak out for justice and democracy, that they might be surveilled, that they might be under the microscope from state security forces. But since we released the information this morning to the movement we have received phone calls from people all over the country who have now said, so now we definitely have to show up and we definitely have to go back to the gates of Fort Benning from November 20-22 to stand up and to protect our rights for free speech and for protests, and also to engage in direct action.
So there is a lot of people who are really, yeah, who are upset by the revelations, but also who are just strengthening their resolve because of that, because they see that actually yeah, that the state also is afraid, that they are using these methods to stifle our dissent.
PERIES: And of course this is all accelerated by this climate we are in of national security being at risk all the time. Do you think people should be mobilizing towards trying to enact some binding legislation prohibiting the FBI from spying on social movements?
VOSS: I think absolutely, I think it’s absolutely past time for that. The spying of SOA Watch started in 2001. This is when the FBI first got involved, and this is, after all these anti-terrorism legislation was enacted. And back then people were saying already that a lot of legislation is not aimed at finding terrorists, but it very much is directed against social movements and groups like us, and groups like also who are now being spied on was Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter movement. And they did that because of the fear of terrorism that was out there and that continues to be out there in the U.S.
But I think the more and more information like this becomes available and the more and more people see how this antiterrorism legislation actually is being abused by the FBI and by other agencies, the more people are starting to question it. And I think there definitely needs to be a push back against these laws and against these agencies that are abusing their counterterrorism authority to go after social movements.
PERIES: And as far as the SOA Watch is concerned, how far is the reach of the FBI? I mean, there’s your offices here, but are they also watching and surveilling your activity in the various countries, other countries where you have offices?
VOSS: There is, the FBI is probably not as much involved in our activities in Latin America. But after the release of the WikiLeaks files we looked through them as well, and we also found references to School of the Americas Watch. For example, when we had meetings with the government of Costa Rica, when we met with Oscar Arias, the president, back in 2007. We found those meetings in the files, and it was in the WikiLeaks file, it was stated as, it was named as the problem that we had this meeting and that Oscar Arias actually agreed to withdraw the soldiers from the School of the Americas. And afterwards through the cables that were sent back between the State Department, the Pentagon, and [Southcom] we saw that they came up with a plan to counter SOA Watch. And they had a six-month pressure campaign where they threatened the government of Costa Rica to cut off aid, military aid to Costa Rica and police aid to Costa Rica.
So–and unfortunately that worked. And there they had success. And Oscar Arias stopped his decision and they are still, now they are still sending police troops back to the SOA. So we definitely know our communications are being, being monitored. But it’s not going to stop us. And we are not intimidated by it. We will be back at the gates of Fort Benning and we continue our campaigns to connect with social movement in Latin America, to build for positive alternatives to the mindset that the SOA is pushing.
PERIES: And is there a collaboration going on between the FBI and the CIA in terms of the SOA Watch activities abroad?
VOSS: We don’t have any evidence for that. We didn’t see anything in the files. However, the 429 pages that we received are heavily redacted. And also we asked the military intelligence, under the Freedom of Information Act, also to release files they have on us. They have so far refused to respond. So we haven’t received those files. But in the released FBI files we see evidence of collaboration between military intelligence and the FBI about School of the Americas Watch.
PERIES: You’ve twice now mentioned the Fort Benning, Georgia action coming up. Tell us a little bit more about it, and do you think that that particular event will be surveilled, as I’m sure it has in the past?
VOSS: Yes, in the past we definitely had–at times we had problems also with local police forces who were infiltrating direct action meetings that we had and who were, yeah, who were acting somewhat unprofessionally. So–but we have some legal collective with us that is going to monitor the police activities, and that is going to make sure that our permitted, non-violent protest will be protected and that people who will be there will be safe.
This year we will go–the protest weekend is from November 20-22. and we will go down to, first we go to the Stewart Detention Center, which is the largest adult immigrant detention center in the United States, to there raise the issue of the root causes of migration, why people have to flee from Latin America after they are subjected to violence from SOA graduates, and to come to the U.S. only to here then again be confronted with racist immigration laws and to be incarcerated for, yeah, for just being without documents here in the United States. So we will have a protest at the Stewart Detention Center on Saturday. Then we have a conference at the convention center in Columbus, Georgia. And at that conference we will also talk about the surveillance state. We will talk about what the FBI is doing, and what we can do against it. So we will have some organizing sessions around that. And then on Sunday morning we will return to the gates of Fort Benning to commemorate the victims of SOA violence and U.S. imperialism in Latin America.
PERIES: All right, Hendrick, thank you so much for joining us today.
VOSS: Thanks so much for having me, thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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