A New Federal War on Dissent?
by James Bovard, Posted November 16, 2005

On October 15, 2003, the FBI sent Intelligence Bulletin #89 to 17,000 local
and state law-enforcement agencies around the country. The bulletin warned
of pending marches in Washington and San Francisco against Bush¹s Iraq
policy and stated,

    While the FBI possesses no information indicating that violent or
terrorist activities are being planned as part of these protests, the
possibility exists that elements of the activist community may attempt to
engage in violent, destructive, or disruptive acts.

The FBI catalogued some of the new threats to public safety:

    Several effective and innovative strategies are commonly used by
protesters prior to, during, and after demonstrations.... Protesters often
use the internet to recruit, raise funds, and coordinate their activities
prior to demonstrations. Activists may also make use of training camps to
rehearse tactics and counter-strategies for dealing with the police.

Saying that dissenters are attending a ³training camp² is intended to
suggest that they are akin to the killers who attended Afghan terrorist
training camps. And the fact that protesters use the Internet is as
irrelevant as that earlier generations of protesters used the U.S. mail.
Since FBI computers are far behind the technology curve, FBI analysts may be
unaware that Internet use is pervasive among Americans of all political

After warning about the danger that ³extremist elements² could engage in
³vandalism,² ³trespassing,² and ³the formation of human chains,² the FBI
cast suspicion on almost anyone attending a protest:

    Even the more peaceful techniques can create a climate of disorder,
block access to a site, draw large numbers of police officers to a specific
location in order to weaken security at other locations, obstruct traffic,
and possibly intimidate people from attending the events being protested.

The FBI promulgated the doctrine of collective guilt for all demonstrators ‹
as if anyone on the streets in the same city as a masked anarchist
troublemaker is as guilty as the person who throws the brick through a
Starbucks window.

The confidential FBI intelligence bulletin revealed to the nation¹s law
officers that protesters might use ³media equipment (video cameras,
photographic equipment, audio tape recorders, microphones, and computer and
radio equipment) ... for documenting potential cases of police brutality and
for distribution of information over the internet.² Apparently, the FBI sees
videotaping an arrest as an illicit infringement on a police officer¹s

The FBI also portrayed practically any defensive measures by demonstrators
as highly suspicious: ³Extremists may be prepared to defend themselves
against law enforcement officials during the course of a demonstration.² The
FBI offered a list of tell-tale signs of subversion:

    Masks (gas masks, goggles, scarves, scuba masks, filter masks, and
sunglasses) can serve to minimize the effects of tear gas and pepper spray
as well as obscure one¹s identity. Extremists may also employ ... body
protection equipment (layered clothing, hard hats and helmets, sporting
equipment, life jackets, etc.) to protect themselves during marches.

Implying that wearing ³layered clothing² is an unfair or illicit tactic is
bizarre ‹ as if anything that blunts the impact of a policeman¹s baton
should be considered aiding and abetting al-Qaeda. The FBI also implied that
any self-defense measures should be considered a provocation. And does the
FBI really think that wearing sunglasses is a sign that a person is
conspiring to avoid the effects of tear gas?

The intelligence bulletin concluded,

    Law enforcement agencies should be alert to these possible indicators of
protest activity and report any potentially illegal acts to the nearest FBI
Joint Terrorism Task Force.

    If local police take the hint and start pouring in information, the task
force could build a ³Total Information Awareness²-like database on anti-war
groups and activists.

A policy of domestic spying?

The FBI intelligence bulletin was first publicly disclosed by the New York
Times¹s Eric Lichtblau on November 23, 2003. The Times added that the FBI
intelligence bulletin ³appears to offer the first corroboration of a
coordinated, nationwide effort to collect intelligence regarding

Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, observed,

    Routine spying on dissidents is a sign of a police state, and unless we
stop this administration¹s cavalier attitude towards fundamental rights we
face a serious threat to our democracy.

Herman Schwartz, a constitutional law professor at American University,

    If you go around telling people, ³We¹re going to ferret out information
on demonstrations,² that deters people. People don¹t want their names and
pictures in FBI files.

An FBI official who insisted on anonymity told the New York Times,

    We¹re not concerned with individuals who are exercising their
constitutional rights. But it¹s obvious that there are individuals capable
of violence at these events.

The ³capable of violence² standard justifies surveillance of almost anyone
except quadriplegics strapped into wheelchairs. The FBI in the late 1960s
and early 1970s justified surveillance of Women¹s Lib meetings ‹ including
keeping detailed records of each attendee¹s sexual grievances ‹ on the basis
of the fear that libbers might become violent. Given the FBI¹s expansive
definition of ³potential violence² in the past, this net can snare almost
any group or individual who falls into official disfavor.

In response to the Times article, the FBI sent a letter to the editor, which
it publicly released along with the confidential intelligence bulletin. The
FBI stated,

    The bulletin is not focused on political protesters or others who
exercise their first amendment rights to protest the policies of the
government, but simply cites the fact that anarchists and others have used
violent tactics to disrupt otherwise peaceful demonstrations.... The
bulletin does not suggest that state and local law enforcement should
collect information on peaceful demonstrators.

But this sanitized interpretation is at odds with the intelligence
bulletin¹s specific request that local law enforcement watch for ³possible
indicators of protest activity² and report to the FBI ³potentially illegal
acts.² And the FBI¹s reference to ³extremists² who wear ³layered clothing²
implies that most wintertime protesters north of the Mason-Dixon Line should
be on the target list.

Subpoena abuse

There are other warning signs that the FBI is off the leash. In February
2004, the FBI¹s Joint Terrorism Task Force issued subpoenas for information
on an anti-war meeting held at the Des Moines, Iowa, campus of Drake
University. The subpoena demanded ³all records of Drake University campus
security reflecting any observations made of the November 15, 2003, meeting,
including any records of persons in charge or control of the meeting, and
any records of attendees.²

The feds also subpoenaed four anti-war activists, including the leader of
the Catholic Peace Ministry, to compel them to testify before a grand jury.
After controversy arose over the subpoenas, the feds issued a new subpoena
muzzling Drake University officials from making any public comments about
the prior subpoenas. The feds also demanded ³information about leaders of
the National Lawyer Guild¹s Drake University chapter, the location of NLG¹s
local offices, its membership rolls, and any annual reports issued since
2002.² The president of the guild, Michael Ayers, complained, ³The law is
clear that the use of the grand jury to investigate protected political
activities or to intimidate protesters exceeds its authority.²

According to several experts, this was the first time in decades that the
feds had issued such a subpoena to a university. The feds lost control of
the spin on the investigation and, after widespread criticism, canceled the
Drake University subpoenas. There is no way to know how many other subpoenas
may have been quietly complied with by colleges or other organizations that
eschewed a public confrontation with the feds.

The following week, two U.S. Army Intelligence agents descended upon the
University of Texas law school in Austin. They entered the office of the
Journal of Women and the Law and demanded that the editors turn over a
roster of the people who attended a recent conference on Islam and women.
The editors denied having a list; the behavior of one agent was described as

The agents then demanded contact information for the student who organized
the conference, Sahar Aziz. University of Texas law professor Douglas
Laycock commented,

    We certainly hope that the Army doesn¹t believe that attending a
conference on Islamic law or Islam and women is itself ground for

Though the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits the use of the military for
domestic law enforcement, the Bush administration is successfully pushing to
have the U.S. military become more involved in domestic snooping.

It took more than a decade after the first big anti-war protests in the
1960s before Americans learned how far the FBI had gone to suppress and
subvert public opposition to the Vietnam War. There have been no
congressional hearings spurred as a result of FBI Intelligence Bulletin #89
‹ despite the FBI¹s stark animosity to free speech therein.

Is the FBI now considering a similar order to field offices as the one it
sent in 1968, telling them to gather information illustrating the
³scurrilous and depraved nature of many of the characters, activities,
habits, and living conditions representative of New Left adherents² ‹ but
this time focused on those who oppose Bush¹s Brave New World?

Since the FBI admits surveilling anti-war groups and urging local police to
send in information on protesters, how far might the feds already be going?
Is the FBI following the standard that former Attorney General John Ashcroft
publicly proclaimed in December 2001 ‹ presuming that those who invoke
³phantoms of lost liberty² are giving ³ammunition to America¹s enemies²?
Unfortunately, because of the Bush administration¹s secrecy policy,
Americans cannot know how far the feds have already gone to suppress

James Bovard is author of The Bush Betrayal as well as Lost Rights (1994)
and Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the
World of Evil (Palgrave-Macmillan, September 2003) and serves as a policy
advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation. Send him email.

This article originally appeared in the August 2005 edition of Freedom
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