Political Policing in the War on Terrorism

By Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis | intelNews | 12/01/2008


THE NATIONAL LAWYERS GUILD IS no stranger to annoying the government of the United States, though it’s been quite a while since it last wore the badge of a national security threat. It was in September 1950, after the House Un-American Activities Committee and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI accused the historic bar association of being a “legal bulwark of the Communist Party”14. The Guild had to struggle hard to earn that reputation, which was ultimately awarded to it for having represented the Rosenbergs, the Hollywood Ten, and other prime targets in America’s war on communism.


But in America’s current war on terrorism, all it took for the Guild to get subpoenaed by the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF)17 was to co-sponsor a November 2002 public forum in Des Moines, Iowa, entitled Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home! On February 4, 2004, a local JTTF employee delivered the subpoena to Drake University, where the forum had been held. The University was ordered to divulge to the authorities all information in its possession in relation to the forum, the identity and records of all participants, as well as the identity of all members of the National Lawyers Guild Drake University chapter. Further, it sought all “meeting agenda or annual reports of this organization filed with the University since January 1, 2002”17.


Initially, no reason was offered for the subpoena. The local Sheriff’s Department refused to discuss it and issued Drake University with a strict gag order. Almost a week later, the subpoena was quashed. No reason was offered once again, but the spiraling controversy caused by increasing media interest is believed to have been instrumental4. It eventually emerged that the antiwar forum had taken place the day before a number of non-violent protesters were arrested at a rally outside the Iowa National Guard camp in Johnston. The authorities were apparently concerned about a protester who attempted to trespass a security fence following the rally. Yet observers remain skeptical. A Washington Post editorial questioned the unconvincing rationale behind the subpoena: “Trespassing? Are they serious? Something else clearly was going on —there is no way federal prosecutors would have so aggressively pursued a crime for which police seldom even handcuff or ticket violators, let alone arrest them. If there was some particular significance to this [attempted] trespassing, officials haven’t let anyone else in on it”5.


The episode seems now to be over, but the uneasy chill lingers on. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Association of University Professors said they were unaware of such a subpoena having been issued to an American educational institution in many decades12. They were also alarmed by the aggression displayed by the authorities in probing a public antiwar forum8.


In retrospect, they should have reserved their anxiety for what was to follow just a few hours later.


On the same day the Drake subpoena was repealed, US Army intelligence agents paid an uninvited visit to the University of Texas at Austin, inquiring about the identity of participants at an academic conference on the status of women in Islamic law. University students and employees were stunned. They allege they were aggressively questioned by the agents and that no search warrant was ever displayed26. Even more astonishingly, they say, the conference —sponsored by such groups as the Human Rights Center and the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies— was as far removed from US national security policy as an elephant in Lapland.


It later turned out that undercover agents had spied on the conference, entitled Islam and the Law: The Question of Sexism, and had become suspicious “after conversing with three Middle Eastern men”11. The US Army has refused further comment, but it’s anyone’s guess how this incident would justify intelligence agents attempting to acquire identity lists of all conference participants and complete video recordings of the proceedings —without a search warrant.


Admittedly, it is hilarious to picture clueless Army undercover informants undergoing endless scholarly aggravation in academic lectures entitled Islamic Law of Marriage and Divorce and Contemporary Contests by Islamic Feminists, or Gender in the Islamic Inheritance Code. Yet the seriousness of the case is inescapable: the incident was unprecedented in the university’s history, and the veteran Dean of the University’s Law School swears he has never, in his 30-year career, heard of an intelligence agency probing an academic conference11.




Not too long ago, the rarity of incidents such as the above would have guaranteed them space in the headlines. Not any more. In 2003 alone, documented instances of federal and local law enforcement espionage against legal political activity have increased at a rate and ferocity equaled only to that found during the Red Scare.


In February 2003, the ACLU received reports1 that several demonstrators arrested for minor offences at a large antiwar rally were forcefully questioned by officers of the New York Police Department (NYPD) about their political and religious affiliations18. These reports were confirmed when the New York CLU acquired copies of a bizarre Demonstration Debriefing Form, used by the NYPD’s Intelligence Division during protesters’ interrogations. The form features sections on the arrestees’ “organizational affiliations” and “prior demonstration history”9.


In September 2003, members of Peace Fresno, a Californian umbrella network of progressive organizations, were shocked by the obituary photograph of undercover police detective Aaron Kilner. Kilner, who had died in a motorcycle accident, had joined the group under a false identity. He had quietly attended several of the group’s meetings, always taking detailed notes of the proceedings2. The Fresno County Sheriff’s Department declined to confirm or deny allegations of espionage, but defended its right to utilize undercover agents at public community meetings. Kilner’s mother ruled out the possibility of her son, an award-winning Young Republican, having joined the group by political choice.


In March 2003, Susan Crawford, a criminal defense attorney participating in a Tucson, AZ, Women in Black peace vigil, detected and revealed the presence of undercover police officers at the event. Crawford was threatened by one of the officers with the warning that she had “made a big mistake”23, and subsequently fought against attempts to prosecute her for revealing the presence of undercover agents. At pre-trial hearings, a number of police officers testified wearing balaclavas to conceal their identities23.


Also in March 2003, undercover agents of the Austin, TX, Police Department’s Organized Crime Division attended a protesters’ planning meeting the day before a large antiwar rally. Internal police memos acquired by the Texas CLU show that the infiltration, which took place at Austin’s AFL-CIO union buildings, was part of a larger operation that included police officers posing as demonstrators during the rally. Austin Police Department confirmed the existence of the memos24.


In April 2003, it was revealed that Michigan State University (MSU) police used an undercover agent to infiltrate the local branch of Students for Economic Justice, an officially registered campus group formerly known as United Students Against Sweatshops. The agent, who participated under a false identity in several of the group’s public meetings and activities, was identified by group members who saw her in police uniform27. Following the agent’s unmasking, MSUpolice admitted the operation was to prevent potential violence during a visit to campus by World Bank President James Wolfensohn, and admitted that no other “investigation into [MSU] student groups [had been] done in decades”27.


In the same month, an ACLU lawsuit in Denver forced the local police department to stop collecting information on protest groups and declassify its records. The latter were found to contain files on nearly 3,500 individual activists, including Quakers and Roman Catholic nuns16, and on more than 200 groups, including Nobel Laureate organizations Amnesty International and the American Friends Service Committee22. Filed accounts described the Rocky Mountain Animal Defense, a law-abiding association of students and retirees whose most radical gesture on record was organizing garage sales to fund anti-circus advertisements, as “criminal extremists”3. In other instances, officers of the Colorado Springs police recorded license plate numbers not only of participants engaged in peaceful environmental protests, but even those of Friday worshipers at local mosques. Much of the collected data was routinely shared with other regional police departments and with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force21.


A week later, in Washington, DC, antiwar organizer Adam Eidinger filed a lawsuit against the city’s Metropolitan Police Department, whose officers he accused of having masqueraded as activists and attended several meetings at his home. The Department has since ignored media inquiries about political surveillance by its undercover agents22.


On May 9, 2003, members of religious, antiwar and women’s groups who had gathered in downtown Atlanta, GA, for a Mother’s Day Declaration of Peace, detected a woman videotaping their gathering from an unmarked vehicle. When approached by rally participants, the woman admitted she was “with intelligence”7, but refused to provide further information. Three weeks later, the Atlanta Police Department admitted that placing law-abiding protesters under clandestine law enforcement surveillance is routine policy7. That is not the case, however, in San Francisco, where the local police department issued an apology in November 2003 for having two of its officers clandestinely videotape antiwar demonstrators without having received the necessary authorization by their superiors6.


In that same month, the Miami Police Department went a step further and embedded undercover agents with demonstrator groups gathered in Miami to rally against a Free Trade Area of the Americas summit. In what is now referred to by federal authorities as the archetypal Homeland Security operation25, groups of undercover agents disguised themselves as protesters15 and, wearing bandanas and carrying anti-FTAA placards, mingled with demonstrators and shocked several of them with electric stun guns before arresting them25.


December 2003 saw the conclusion of a reconsideration motion of a court order requiring the Washington, DC, Police Department to disclose the identities of its undercover agents spying on law-abiding organizations. Presiding US District Judge Gladys Kessler determined that the Department “maintains widespread, extensive spying operations on the activities and operations of political advocacy organizations […] on the basis of their political philosophies and conduct protected under the First Amendment. Moreover […] such operations are carried on even in the absence of allegations of criminal activities by the organizations being spied upon”2.


In January 2004, clergy and religious activists at a San Francisco religious meeting in support of California’s grocery workers’ strike, spotted the presence of two plainclothes agents of the Contra Costa County Homeland Security Department. The agents, who were operating outside of their jurisdiction, had also visited a Contra Costa County labor union the day prior to the meeting. Upon admitting their participation in an undercover operation, the agents were confronted by one of the meeting’s organizers, Reverent Phil Lawson, who pointedly asked them “when did we clergy people, people of faith, become such a threat to national security?”28.


Finally, in February 2004, it emerged that Chicago Police officers have been spying on at least five progressive organizations since as early as 2002, and conducted several infiltration operations in 2003. Among the targeted groups were the American Friends Service Committee, the Not in Our Name campaign, the Chicago Direct Action Network, the Autonomous Zone, and Anarchist Black Cross. Police officials justified the infiltrations as precautionary measures to prevent disruption of the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue —a convention of world business executives held in Chicago— and refused to disclose the identities of progressive groups or individuals targeted in spy operations in 200319.




These are but a select few of the dozens of documented instances of political espionage by law enforcement agencies in recent years. Analyzed collectively, they can help civil liberties observers discern the pattern of the policy changes that have shaped the government’s domestic surveillance since 9-11.


It can be safely assumed that these recent instances of political espionage are statistically significant, as they represent only the few cases where targets of spying operations became conscious of, and were able to detect, their watchers. Their sheer number certainly suggests a dramatic proliferation of undercover surveillance operations directed against political activity. Furthermore, they substantiate the limited information civil liberties observers have managed to access through the ever-widening net of official government secrecy. We know from congressional testimony records that, in 2003, US Attorney General John Ashcroft authorized in excess of 170 emergency Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants —a number far greater than that corresponding to the past 23 years18.


We also know from a number of leaked FBI memoranda that the Bureau has advised local law enforcement agencies to collect and report data specifically related to political protest activities —a significant policy shift indicating a systematic nationwide campaign to monitor demonstrations and other customary activist pursuits. As a result, numerous police departments around the country now openly admit13 the integration of political surveillance programs into their day-to-day activities7. What is more, these directives are seen as legally protected by the PATRIOT Act.


The same applies to the broadening trend of university police officers employed by federal authorities to infiltrate student and faculty organizations deemed radical. The FBI has acknowledged enlisting in its Joint Terrorism Task Force police officers on several university campuses. The officers enlisted are usually prohibited from conveying to their superiors their role in classified counterterrorism investigations10. The security establishment has also asked Congress to consider proposals to allow intelligence officials to supervise teaching curricula and staff hiring at educational institutions accepting federal funding for international studies programs26.


Equally evident and worthy of examination is the aggression with which surveillance is exercised even in the most benign contexts: an academic conference on feminism and the Islamic legal system; a Women in Black candlelight vigil; a Mother’s Day peace rally consisting primarily of Unitarian teachers and retired unionists; Amnesty International activities; and even a pro-labor meeting of clergy members. One can only speculate as to the forceful character of surveillance operations directed against Islamic or Arab political organizations, or even ideologically uncompromising —yet legal and law-abiding— socialist groups and anarchist collectives.


Perhaps most importantly, the above evidence suggests that surveillance operations against lawful political activity are increasingly managed and directed from counterterrorism centers, and guided by a counterterrorist mentality. If such practices are prolonged and institutionalized, they could incite a potentially catastrophic blurring of long-established definitions of militant terrorism and civil disobedience.


Meanwhile, the intended message to social activists has been delivered —and, as political policing goes, it couldn’t be clearer: if you thought the war on terrorism meant US-sponsored covert operations in distant lands, think again. Until that shiny day when there will be no more terrorists, communists, or rogue anti-Americans, chances are you won’t be able to exercise your constitutional rights without appearing in some shadowy agency’s preemptive database.




01 Anon. (2003) “Demonstration Debriefing Forms Recall Bad Old Days of Police Surveillance”, New York Civil Liberties, New York Civil Liberties Union, Summer.

02 Anon. (2003) “Spotlight on the Cops”, The Washington Post, 17 December.

03 Anon. (2003) “The Real Extremists: Police Surveillance of Peaceful Groups Crossed the Line”, The Daily Camera, 21 May.

04 Anon. (2004) “Feds Drop All Subpoenas Against Peace Protesters, University”, The Iowa Channel, 09 February.

05 Anon. (2004) “Withdrawn Subpoenas Still Disturbing”, The San Francisco Examiner, 12 February.

06 Calvan, B.C. (2003) “New Surveillance Guidelines Fuel Debate in California: Concerns Raised on Civil Liberties”, The Boston Globe, 30 November.

07 Chapman, D. (2003) “Protesting? Atlanta Police Department is Watching”, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 31 May.

08 Davey, M. (2004) “An Antiwar Forum in Iowa Brings Federal Subpoenas”, The New York Times, 10 February.

09 Dunn, C., and Lieberman, D. (2003) Letter addressed to New York City Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly by the New York Civil Liberties Union, dated 08 April.

10 Eggen, D. (2003) “FBI Taps Campus Police in Anti-Terror Operations”, The Washington Post, 25 January.

11 Elliot, J. (2004) “Presence of Army Agents Stirs Furor”, The Houston Chronicle, 13 February.

12 Foley, R.J. (2004) “Feds Win Right to War Protesters’ Records”, Associated Press, 08 February.

13 Hoffman, I. (2003) “State monitored war protesters: Intelligence agency does not distinguish between terrorism and peace activism”, The Oakland Tribune, 18 May.

14 House Un-American Activities Committee (1950) Report on the National Lawyers Guild: Legal Bulwark of the Communist Party, Report no3123, United States Congress, Washington, DC.

15 Kjos, L. (2003) “Miami Quiet as Trade Talks Near”, United Press International, 19 November.

16 Langeland, T. (2003) “New ‘Spy-File’ Revelations”, The Colorado Springs Independent, 01 May.

17 Laurier, J. (2004) “Federal Authorities Drop Subpoenas to Iowa Anti-War Activists”, World Socialist Web Site, 12 February.

18 Lichtblau, E. (2003) “FBI Scrutinizes Antiwar Rallies”, The New York Times, 23 November.

19 Main, F. (2004) “Police Infiltration of Protest Groups Upsets Rights Activists”, The Chicago Sun-Times, 19 February.

20 Marcum, D. (2003) “Group Alleges Police Scrutiny”, The Fresno Bee, 03 October.

21 McPhee, M. (2003) “Spy Files Shared with FBI, Others”, The Denver Post, 16 May.

22 Mendoza, M. (2003) “US Police Surveillance Questioned”, The Associated Press, 06 April.

23 Morlock, B. (2003) Public Defender ‘Introduces’ Undercover Cop Spying on Anti-War Rally”, The Tucson Citizen, 07 May.

24 Reddick, C. (2003) “Undercover Officers at Anti-War Meetings”, The Daily Texan, 19 February.

25 Scahill, J. (2003) “The Miami Model: Paramilitaries, Embedded Journalists and Illegal Protests”, Democracy Now!, 24 November.

26 Shah, N. (2004) “War Threatens Speech Rights at Universities”, The Daily Northwestern, 18 February.

27 Steele, J.W. (2003) “Activist Group Exposes Undercover Officer”, The State News, 03 April.

28 Wood. R. (2004) “Homeland Security’s Faith-Based Initiative?”, The People’s Weekly World, 31 January.



2 Responses to Political Policing in the War on Terrorism

  1. Maureen Worhach says:

    This is betrayal, traitorous and UNAMERICAN..NOT TO MENTION, EVIL..!
    GOD BLESS…Maureen and Paul..

  2. Pingback: Stumblers.Net › Has US Pentagon revived Bush-era domestic spy program?

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