Wednesday, October 20, 2010

POG Statement on Recent News About Government Surveillance and Repression of Political Organizing

October 4, 2010 Infoshop News

Over the last two weeks, a number of media stories have appeared reporting the latest “revelations” in government surveillance and repression of political organizing.

We, Pittsburgh Organizing Group, are reporting on this in order to present some brief thoughts on the various state activities directed against us over the years. Our hope is that something might be relevant to others who have, or will, experience similar attention from law enforcement.

We provide one example of the various ways state actors have responded to the efforts of radical organizations and anarchist groups.

The first spying story to hit the news was disclosure that the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response was contracted by the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security office to produce reports on threats to critical infrastructure. The $103,000 contract resulted in a slew of weekly bulletins warning law enforcement and corporate interests about a wide range of political activity and groups, from the Tea Party to Quakers to anarchists, even reports on a gay and lesbian festival.

In the 137 released bulletins, POG is mentioned a number of times for protest activity, such as a solidarity event with the FAU-B union in Germany, and in almost every case we were assigned a “medium” threat level with warnings the actions in question are likely to involve vandalism or increased risks of “attacks.” The reports also contain coverage of Greek anarchist activity, the danger posed by CrimethInc’s call for a month of anarchist activity, and the existence of the Northeast Anarchist Network.

In short, the “Institute” is a money-making scam perpetrated on ignorant government bodies desperate to appear they are taking action on terrorism matters. The company monitors publicly accessible websites and media, and then rewrites and repackages the information. In the process, they obscure the obvious sources; a public call-to-action on an e-mail list-server becomes “intercepted communications.”

The actual intelligence level and analysis is extremely low, with an obvious misunderstanding of the way anarchist movements work and what kinds of events are likely to result in disruptive or illegal actions. None of the bulletins indicate any sort of human sources, collaboration with other law enforcement bodies, or monitoring of private communications.

The other case is much more extensive and warrants a closer look.

On September 20, 2010 the Federal Department of Justice (DOJ) released the results of an analysis into the FBI’s recent investigations of PETA, Greenpeace, a Seattle-based individual, Catholic Workers, the Thomas Merton Center and Pittsburgh Organizing Group.

The catalyst for the initial inquiry into Pittsburgh was testimony, ultimately proved by the DOJ to be false, that FBI director Robert Mueller provided to Congress regarding why an FBI agent was photographing a small Pittsburgh anti-war gathering in 2002.

What the documents chronicle is the origin of the local FBI’s focus on POG and some of how they sought to investigate the group. Little of it is particularly new, or surprising.

At different points during 2003-2006 the FBI, specifically the field offices in Pittsburgh and Miami, opened investigations into our efforts and three individuals they associated with our group as part of a preliminary investigation into potential acts of domestic terrorism.

Pittsburgh FBI agent statements claim that they weren’t aware of our existence at all till late 2003. During that time, we had been wheat-pasting thousands of posters around town advertising the 2002 Anti-IMF/World Bank “Peoples Strike” actions in Washington, D.C. Sixty people from Pittsburgh were arrested there, after a successful blockade action. Locally, we ‘d organized a half dozen unpermitted anti-war street marches, some of which brought out up to 1,500 people per march, during and after the start of the Iraq war, etc.

Specific incidents mentioned are, for the most part, already known to the group, such as the botched FBI agents’ surveillance of an anti-FTAA-related meeting at the Project 1877 community center, when the FBI was outed by a sympathetic community member and the agents were caught unaware that the action discussion was planned for another location.

Other incidents of surveillance were also common knowledge, such as the fact that law enforcement bodies held inter-agency meetings to disseminate information on groups such as ours in their planning before major actions. The fact that so many state forces are involved makes it almost inevitable that word (of the meeting, if not the specifics) will reach target groups such as ours, which was exactly the case with the February planning meeting they reference in their report.

Some of the details provide context about previously suspected situations. They also provide a window of understanding into the logic that underlies seemingly bizarre bureaucratic choices. As might be suspected, the investigations were often occurring simply because people wanted to keep getting paid, which meant generating information and appearing to be working.

One of the lead case officers in the investigation recruited his son’s friend, who regularly helped the officer with his computer. The recruit was tasked with attending meetings and participating in anti-war actions that we organized.

This “source” mistakenly believed the FBI agent would help him resolve an outstanding court case and seems to have played a minor role in some of the discussions and organizing happening around labor and anti-war struggles at the time.

The agent stated to the DOJ that he sought an informant because his probationary period at the agency was coming to an end and his boss was putting pressure on him regarding his lack of a source program.

Another telling fact is the multi-month lag between receipt of the original Miami field office information and the Pittsburgh office’s opening of the investigation, a solid month after the FTAA protest occurred. An FBI agent chalked this is up to the fact they were busy with a local investigation so they didn’t initially care, and then they were having a slow time and looking for things to do so they decided to look into POG.

The agency decided from the start to fixate on men in the group. They believed that one man was “the leader of the group.” The Pittsburgh police had come to the same conclusion. An investigation was opened into another individual, simply because he’d been seen exiting a car with another person-of-interest in the group.

In previous demonstrations we’ve organized, people – sometimes not even group members – have been targeted because the authorities believed whoever had the bullhorn had to be in charge. Nowhere in the documents are any women mentioned, despite the fact that women have typically comprised at least an equal, if not greater, part of our membership throughout group history.

Extensions were sought for the investigations after “Anna,” the now infamous informant who helped entrap and jail Eric McDavid, traveled through Pittsburgh. She came to a POG meeting, desiring to talk about organizing for the 2004 DNC convention protests in Boston, where she had attended some planning meetings. In her reports to the FBI, she falsely claimed POG discussed planning illegal activity at the 2004 RNC protests in NYC, a protest that was on the agenda though no actual action was discussed. Apparently, her false information played a role in the agency devoting at least an extra six months to the investigation.

In the end, the Pittsburgh FBI closed these particular cases, and shortly thereafter shut down the source. The new head of the Pittsburgh office was supposedly shocked at the various violations of FBI guidelines that had occurred. No charges were brought, as it was concluded that the people in question had either moved away, were never actually in the group to begin with, or were involved merely in low-level criminal activity. As far as we know, no charges can be traced to these investigations and no actions that depended on an element of surprise were compromised.

If the DOJ report is to be believed, the Pittsburgh FBI field office investigation into POG and its members ceased by 2006. Despite this claim, we know for a fact that FBI investigations (not based in Pittsburgh) involving our group members have continued off and on in the years since, and a new one was almost certainly opened related to activities around the G-20 summit – despite the fact that POG did not organize any activities during the summit. The same can be said for military intelligence outfits and secret service agents that have directed resources toward POG in the past. Ditto for the Pittsburgh Police, who repeatedly go out of their way to make clear they are at war with the local anarchist movement.

The most troubling part of the reaction to this report is how the information is simply being taken as fact because a government investigative body produced it. The DOJ regurgitates the statements of anonymous FBI agents (the only people interviewed) as if they have credibility, and so we end up with a report that could very well be a vehicle for further government malfeasance. For instance, the state has a long history of snitch jacketing people. The information in the report about the individual who attended anti-war discussions at the Merton Center is likely enough to identify them, but only if all of the information is correct. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Something as simple as saying he rather than she could lead to someone being falsely implicated. People are falling over themselves to celebrate the DOJ’s mild, partial criticism of some completely unverified second- and third-hand sources discussing FBI activities.

In this way the government has at least succeeded in disseminating as fact a false historical record, setting a dangerous precedent for associating individuals as the subjects of terrorism investigations, or as informants. That they’ve been able to do so is a testament to how they’ve set themselves up as the legitimate judge and jury for FBI conduct. Now they are being further legitimized in that position by liberal activists desperate for any “official” support of their criticisms, even if it’s at the cost of a report that justifies the vast majority of what the FBI has supposedly engaged in. In justifying much of the FBI’s conduct the scope of what is considered an acceptable level of surveillance and repression has been expanded.

And these kinds of activities will not end. The history of the FBI is filled with exposés of previous misconduct and illegality, regardless of the laws of the day. We don’t discourage those who are outraged from organizing; we are simply saying that, for us, regardless of surveillance the important thing is building and expanding points of conflict with the state.

So what does this all say about the repression the FBI continues to direct at anarchists and how we might respond?

Based on our experience, which is highly situational and rooted in a medium-sized city with a large radical community, there are a few take-aways. Truthfully, much of this has already been said elsewhere, we reiterate some points simply because it is worth doing so when affirmative evidence is supposedly coming directly out of the mouths of FBI agents.

The state can’t be everywhere at once, and it often struggles to effectively allocate resources.

Throughout the active phase of these investigations, dozens of acts of sabotage by unknown actors occurred locally against a variety of government and corporate targets, for which no one was ever charged. The people and group brought under closer scrutiny were not involved and were never charged with any serious crimes. The FBI believed they would find evidence of more serious crimes and didn’t, and then continued to focus their limited resources on these dead ends simply because it was easy to do so.

Always work to raise the cost of repression, retaliate if possible.

When the state goes after you, it often opens itself up to scrutiny and attack. Never pass up a strategic opportunity to respond and assert yourself. If they visit resistance movements, resistance movements should visit them. Anarchists in Pittsburgh have utilized different responses depending on the situation: a late night march to the private home of the chief of police, going to the media and embarrassing an FBI agent, picketing a Pittsburgh police officer’s home, doing significant property damage to a military recruitment station that had been the site of a police attack on protesters, picketing a politician’s church. In none of those cases were arrests made or additional repression generated by the acts.

You don’t even need to be the one being targeted to decide to respond; often it may make more sense for those outside a situation to take action. The more we create a culture of action in response to state harassment, the more we raise the cost.

Plan for repression.

We are always under the assumption we are being watched and monitored. The personal proclivities and idiosyncrasies of large bureaucracies play such a large role in how, and against whom, repression is directed. One can’t simply use a static and objective criterion to properly assess risk. Publicly known, open or semi open groups shouldn’t be having discussions about anything we aren’t prepared to have read back to us in court. This doesn’t mean abandoning confrontation or action, just understanding the lines we’re drawing so we can be open and deliberative within that space. Along these lines groups should be aware of their weaknesses and continually working on mitigation strategies.

Try to avoid repression without repressing yourself.

It is worthwhile for groups and group members to devote some energy getting on the same page of how to avoid unnecessary discussions and statements that are easily used as pretexts for repression. Don’t spend your energy trying to figure out who is a cop; do take decisive action to kick out those you find out are working with law enforcement, or who act in ways that are just as dangerous or disruptive. Real security concerns always trump a desire to avoid confrontations that are difficult or make people feel uncomfortable. Ignoring obvious signs of dishonesty or situations where things just don’t add up is not creating an inclusive space or movement.

A group’s activities and structure should fit a group’s role.

If POG’s goal was to engage in extensive property damage at protests we would be ill-served by our relatively open structure and continuous turnover. We aren’t the kind of group that can pull off major secret plans without accepting responsibility after the fact. We work best as a relatively public point of entry for new people interested in anarchism and resistance efforts. We can open up space through protests or campaigns for our members and others to take actions they find effective, and we can serve as a kind of limiting/retaliatory force when specific acts of solidarity are called for. We can build communication resources that report on our and others’ activities. The more clear a group’s activities are, and directly related to their structure, the easier it becomes to recognize how repression is likely to come about and plan for it.

State involvement might be driving wedges in movements.

It is entirely possible, though not confirmed, that state activity related to the Merton Center and POG has fed into the deteriorated (now non-existent) relationships between the two organizations. It is clear from these and previous documents that FBI informants were attending a variety of public anti-war meetings occurring at the Merton Center, implying they were participants in the discussions hosted by the TMC Anti-War Committee. How they did, or didn’t, help shape the dynamics of those discussions (which led to bad blood for a number of years) is unknown. The Merton Center has now pushed away any anarchist-friendly elements, and is renting their new space from a development institution that works with the local police and FBI, so this is simply a point worth pondering, not one that calls for any reconsideration of our existing relationships.

Change the context and the laws will either follow or simply become irrelevant.

There are already enough laws on the books that can be construed to criminalize almost all useful activity. The threshold for the FBI to open a preliminary investigation is practically non-existent, requiring only a vague sense that something could happen. We can waste our time trying to get this or that law changed, or revised, but this is a losing battle. A better focus is to create a political context through which our actions can be understood and to build the kind of non-cooperative power that makes passing new laws ineffective. Fighting back is not pursuing change through the electoral or court systems, though if anarchists’ strategies resonate, these systems will no doubt change as the social terrain changes. We continue to be heartened in this respect by the vast array of experimentation and reflection that seems to be occurring by different tendencies in Pittsburgh and around the country.

As always, all of our love to those still fighting.


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