Sunday, May 29, 2011

For Anarchist, Details of Life as F.B.I. Target

May 29, 2011 NY Times

AUSTIN, Tex. — A fat sheaf of F.B.I. reports meticulously details the
surveillance that counterterrorism agents directed at the one-story house
in East Austin. For at least three years, they traced the license plates
of cars parked out front, recorded the comings and goings of residents and
guests and, in one case, speculated about a suspicious flat object spread
out across the driveway.

“The content could not be determined from the street,” an agent observing
from his car reported one day in 2005. “It had a large number of
multi-colored blocks, with figures and/or lettering,” the report said, and
“may be a sign that is to be used in an upcoming protest.”

Actually, the item in question was more mundane.

“It was a quilt,” said Scott Crow, marveling over the papers at the dining
table of his ramshackle home, where he lives with his wife, a housemate
and a backyard menagerie that includes two goats, a dozen chickens and a
turkey. “For a kids’ after-school program.”

Mr. Crow, 44, a self-described anarchist and veteran organizer of
anticorporate demonstrations, is among dozens of political activists
across the country known to have come under scrutiny from the F.B.I.’s
increased counterterrorism operations since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Other targets of bureau surveillance, which has been criticized by civil
liberties groups and mildly faulted by the Justice Department’s inspector
general, have included antiwar activists in Pittsburgh, animal rights
advocates in Virginia and liberal Roman Catholics in Nebraska. When such
investigations produce no criminal charges, their methods rarely come to
light publicly.

But Mr. Crow, a lanky Texas native who works at a recycling center, is one
of several Austin activists who asked the F.B.I. for their files, citing
the Freedom of Information Act. The 440 heavily-redacted pages he
received, many bearing the rubric “Domestic Terrorism,” provide a
revealing window on the efforts of the bureau, backed by other federal,
state and local police agencies, to keep an eye on people it deems

In the case of Mr. Crow, who has been arrested a dozen times during
demonstrations but has never been convicted of anything more serious than
trespassing, the bureau wielded an impressive array of tools, the
documents show.

The agents watched from their cars for hours at a time — Mr. Crow recalls
one regular as “a fat guy in an S.U.V. with the engine running and the
air-conditioning on” — and watched gatherings at a bookstore and cafe. For
round-the-clock coverage, they attached a video camera to the phone pole
across from his house on New York Avenue.

They tracked Mr. Crow’s phone calls and e-mails and combed through his
trash, identifying his bank and mortgage companies, which appear to have
been served with subpoenas. They visited gun stores where he shopped for a
rifle, noting dryly in one document that a vegan animal rights advocate
like Mr. Crow made an unlikely hunter. (He says the weapon was for
self-defense in a marginal neighborhood.)

They asked the Internal Revenue Service to examine his tax returns, but
backed off after an I.R.S. employee suggested that Mr. Crow’s modest
earnings would not impress a jury even if his returns were flawed. (He
earns $32,000 a year at Ecology Action of Texas, he said.)

They infiltrated political meetings with undercover police officers and
informers. Mr. Crow counts five supposed fellow activists who were
reporting to the F.B.I.

Mr. Crow seems alternately astonished, angered and flattered by the
government’s attention. “I’ve had times of intense paranoia,” he said,
especially when he discovered that some trusted allies were actually

“But first, it makes me laugh,” he said. “It’s just a big farce that the
government’s created such paper tigers. Al Qaeda and real terrorists are
hard to find. We’re easy to find. It’s outrageous that they would spend so
much money surveilling civil activists, and anarchists in particular, and
equating our actions with Al Qaeda.”

The investigation of political activists is an old story for the F.B.I.,
most infamously in the Cointel program, which scrutinized and sometimes
harassed civil rights and antiwar advocates from the 1950s to the 1970s.
Such activities were reined in after they were exposed by the Senate’s
Church Committee, and F.B.I. surveillance has been governed by an evolving
set of guidelines set by attorneys general since 1976.

But the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 demonstrated the lethal danger of
domestic terrorism, and after the Sept. 11 attacks, the F.B.I. vowed never
again to overlook terrorists hiding in plain sight. The Qaeda sleeper
cells many Americans feared, though, turned out to be rare or nonexistent.

The result, said Michael German, a former F.B.I. agent now at the American
Civil Liberties Union, has been a zeal to investigate political activists
who pose no realistic threat of terrorism.

“You have a bunch of guys and women all over the country sent out to find
terrorism. Fortunately, there isn’t a lot of terrorism in many
communities,” Mr. German said. “So they end up pursuing people who are
critical of the government.”

Complaints from the A.C.L.U. prompted the Justice Department’s inspector
general to assess the F.B.I.’s forays into domestic surveillance. The
resulting report last September absolved the bureau of investigating
dissenters based purely on their expression of political views. But the
inspector general also found skimpy justification for some investigations,
uncertainty about whether any federal crime was even plausible in others
and a mislabeling of nonviolent civil disobedience as “terrorism.”

Asked about the surveillance of Mr. Crow, an F.B.I. spokesman, Paul E.
Bresson, said it would be “inappropriate” to discuss an individual case.
But he said that investigations are conducted only after the bureau
receives information about possible crimes.

“We do not open investigations based on individuals who exercise the
rights afforded to them under the First Amendment,” Mr. Bresson said. “In
fact, the Department of Justice and the bureau’s own guidelines for
conducting domestic operations strictly forbid such actions.”

It is not hard to understand why Mr. Crow attracted the bureau’s
attention. He has deliberately confronted skinheads and Ku Klux Klan
members at their gatherings, relishing the resulting scuffles. He claims
to have forced corporate executives to move with noisy nighttime protests.

He says he took particular pleasure in a 2003 demonstration for Greenpeace
in which activists stormed the headquarters of ExxonMobil in Irving, Tex.,
to protest its environmental record. Dressed in tiger outfits, protesters
carried banners to the roof of the company’s offices, while others wearing
business suits arrived in chauffeured Jaguars, forcing frustrated police
officers to sort real executives from faux ones.

“It was super fun,” said Mr. Crow, one of the suits, who escaped while 36
other protesters were arrested. “They had ignored us and ignored us. But
that one got their attention.”

It got the attention of the F.B.I. as well, evidently, leading to the
three-year investigation that focused specifically on Mr. Crow. The
surveillance documents show that he also turned up in several other
investigations of activism in Texas and beyond, from 2001 to at least

For an aficionado of civil disobedience, Mr. Crow comes across as more
amiable than combative. He dropped out of college, toured with an
electronic-rock band and ran a successful Dallas antiques business while
dabbling in animal rights advocacy. In 2001, captivated by the philosophy
of anarchism, he sold his share of the business and decided to become a
full-time activist.

Since then, he has led a half-dozen groups and run an annual training camp
for protesters. (The camps invariably attracted police infiltrators who
were often not hard to spot. “We had a rule,” he said. “If you were burly,
you didn’t belong.”) He also helped to found Common Ground Relief, a
network of nonprofit organizations created in New Orleans after Hurricane

Anarchism was the catchword for an international terrorist movement at the
turn of the 20th century. But Mr. Crow, whose e-mail address contains the
phrase “quixotic dreaming,” describes anarchism as a kind of locally
oriented self-help movement, a variety of “social libertarianism.”

“I don’t like the state,” he said. “I don’t want to overthrow it, but I
want to create alternatives to it.”

This kind of talk appears to have baffled some of the agents assigned to
watch him, whose reports to F.B.I. bosses occasionally seem petulant. One
agent calls “nonviolent direct action,” a phrase in activists’ materials,
“an oxymoron.” Another agent comments, oddly, on Mr. Crow and his wife,
Ann Harkness, who have been together for 24 years, writing that “outwardly
they did not appear to look right for each other.” At a training session,
“most attendees dressed like hippies.”

Such comments stand out amid detailed accounts of the banal: mail in the
recycling bin included “a number of catalogs from retail outlets such as
Neiman Marcus, Ann Taylor and Pottery Barn.”

Mr. Crow said he hoped the airing of such F.B.I. busywork might deter
further efforts to keep watch over him. The last documents he has seen
mentioning him date from 2008. But the Freedom of Information Act exempts
from disclosure any investigations that are still open.

“I still occasionally see people sitting in cars across the street,” he
said. “I don’t think they’ve given up.”

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