How the FBI Goes After Activists
Tom Burke was driving through a sleepy part of Grand Rapids, Michigan—an empty neighborhood full of abandoned warehouses—when he first noticed the vehicle tailing him. “I was like, Why is this car turning left whenever I turn left?” he recalled. “I figured out I was being followed.”
Tom, a 49-year-old who has been active in antiwar and labor circles for decades, had been monitored for months by the FBI, and that morning, September 24, 2010, the Bureau was moving against him and his fellow activists. Agents had raided the homes of some of Tom’s friends, seizing computers and tearing apart rooms as part of an investigation into whether they were planning an armed revolution and providing aid to terrorist organizations. In response, Tom was on his way to an internet café to issue a press release telling the world what was happening, which was about all he could do given the circumstances.
That same morning, he and his wife were served with subpoenas demanding they testify before a grand jury. By December, 23 activists across the Midwest were subpoenaed and asked to answer for their activism. Among other things, they were accused of providing “material support” for terrorism, a charge that can mean anything from providing guns to a terrorist group to providing any sort of “advice or assistance” to members of such a group, even if that advice is “lay down your arms.” (Former president Jimmy Carterwarned a few months before the raids that the threat of a “material support” charge “inhibits the work of human-rights and conflict-resolution groups.”)
Nearly four years later no one has been charged with a crime, and an unsealed affidavit, which the FBI used to get a federal judge to sign off on the 2010 raids, even notes that this group of mostly middle-aged peace activists explicitly rejected the idea of providing arms to anyone. The document, released by court order last month in response to requests from the activists, shows that an undercover special agent was intent on luring people into saying ominous things about “revolution” and, sometimes, some of these people indulged her, which provided the pretext for legally harassing a group known to oppose US policy at home and abroad.
How to Burglarize the FBI: The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI Did It Back in 1971
For most of US history, spies didn’t have rules—even when they were targeting US citizens. The spymasters and their agents did whatever was necessary: blackbag break-ins, illegal phone taps, telegram and mail intercepts, plus the usual lying, stealing, and killing. But in late 1970, a collection of ordinary citizens became so outraged by illegal government spying that they began to meticulously plan a daring mission: They would raid an FBI office.
On March 8, 1971, a group of activists calling themselves the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an office outside of Philadelphia, stole nearly all the FBI’s own documents, and mailed them to Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger. This leak led to massive reforms of the rules of surveillance. Any limits on NSA and FBI actions inside the United States are thanks in part to these daring citizen burglars. They kept their story a secret for 43 years. Meet the men and women who burglarized the FBI.
Their secret planning began with a spaghetti dinner. A pair of college professors, several university students, a social worker, a daycare worker, and a taxi driver gathered around a homey dinner table, children underfoot at a three-story stone townhouse in Philadelphia. Some of the guests were on edge, while others laughed like old friends. Their leader William “Bill” Davidon, a physics professor at nearby Haverford College, was the oldest at 43. He leaned back, quietly observing the crew that ranged in age down to 20. Several of the members had been arrested in earlier actions. But this operation was on a different scale of danger. Even sitting at the table slurping spaghetti and discussing plans was enough for conspiracy charges, perhaps up to ten years in Federal Prison. If the FBI catches you in the act, a friendly lawyer warned, you might be shot.
Yes, the NSA Can Spy on Every American
On June 9th, two reporters from the Guardian newspaper announced to the world the source of one of the most significant classified document leaks in history. Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old national security contractor from Hawaii, revealed that he was compelled by conscience to inform the world about a massive abuse of authority perpetrated by the US National Security Agency. According to the documents Snowden provided, which have been authenticated, the US government has been systematically collecting the phone records and online communications of millions of American citizens.
Both the media and the public were shocked by the news that the NSA had such broad digital surveillance capabilities. A program utilized by the agency, code-named “PRISM,” provides intelligence analysts with the ability to intercept almost any form of online communication, from any person. Government officials claim the program cannot be used to target US citizens. However, US intelligence agencies have planned to implement this type of program domestically for years.
We learned earlier this year that the FBI’s top priority for 2013 is to increase their online surveillance authority. This directive—they claim—developed from an ever-widening gap between existing wiretap laws and the accelerated growth of online communications. According to the FBI, the limitations on their surveillance powers may now pose a “threat to public safety.” This problem is officially referred to by the bureau as “Going Dark.”
In 2011, before the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, then General Counsel of the FBI Valerie Caproni made the following statement: “…the FBI and other government agencies are facing a potentially widening gap between our legal authority to intercept electronic communications pursuant to court order and our practical ability to actually intercept those communications.” It isn’t a stretch to describe the scenario given as fictitious taken recent revelations about the true power of the FBI to intercept our data.
How Are We Supposed to Know What the Government Does?
You should probably be afraid, at least a little, of the federal government. The reason for this doesn’t have anything to do with conspiracy theories about fluoridation or the Obama administration hoarding ammo to keep it out of the hands of True Patriots. It’s simpler than that: you should be worried about the US government because it is huge and well funded and powerful and, most importantly, you don’t know what it’s doing.
The civics class version of government—that there are three branches, each with its own checks and balances and blah blah blah—is hopelessly outdated. For one thing, the legislative branch is paralyzed by partisanship and a set of rules that make it impossible for it to do anything but stop laws from getting enacted. For another, as documented by the Washington Post in 2010, the governmental agencies that are in charge of “national security” have grown like not-all-that-benign tumors, consuming billions of tax dollars, constructing massive top-secret facilities, and employing hundreds of thousands of people whose job descriptions you don’t have the security clearance to know. The national security state is vast and unknowable, practically its own branch of government at this point, with its own secret history. Millions upon millions of documents are classified, many unnecessarily. By some counts, there are more pages of classified documents in the US than there are unclassified—and the government spends $12 billion a year keeping all that information under wraps.
We Spoke to Barret Brown from Prison
Since my initial piece on Barrett Brown about a month ago, there has been a small development in his case. Barrett, of course, is the journalist who is popularly mislabeled as a spokesperson for Anonymous and is facing a century of hard time in a federal prison for threatening an FBI officer, hiding evidence that obstructed his warrant, and sharing a link within an IRC chat room that contained the stolen credit card information of Stratfor customers (a security company that had 5 million of its internal emails stolen from them). While Barrett is still sitting in a federal prison waiting to see a judge, news broke last night that Barrett Brown’s mother pled guiltyto her own charge of obstructing a search warrant. She hid Barrett’s computers from the FBI and is now facing $100,000 in fines and six months of probation.
In addition, Jeremy Hammond, the hacker who is accused of actually hacking into Stratfor has been sitting in prison for 13 months without trial. His case was further delayed when it was discovered that the original judge who was appointed to try Jeremy is the wife of a man whose data was compromised by the Stratfor hack.
A couple of weeks ago, Barrett Brown called me from prison to talk to me about his case. We discussed the winding intricacies of his story in two 15-minute bursts, which was all the time the restrictions of his imprisonment would allow.
VICE: A lot of people say that you’re the spokesperson for Anonymous. What do you say to that?
Barrett Brown: I’m not. For two years now, I’ve denied that publicly. Every time I’m asked, it turns out that I’m not. The first thing people find when they google me should be a D Magazine article in which I explained that. No one is the spokesperson for Anonymous. It doesn’t work that way. I wouldn’t want that position if it were a position.
I don’t necessarily agree with everything Anonymous does. I don’t necessarily like a lot of Anons. I was very supportive of the dynamics that Anonymous represents. I’m very much an advocate (and continue to be) of these new sorts of communities to express yourself on the internet and the next move I’ll be making is deploying some communities—a little more structured than Anons’—to perpetuate themselves, and grow, while maintaining Anonymous’s core qualities. I’ve identified with Anonymous very closely for two years now, but one of the interesting things to me is how all the articles refer to me as the self-proclaimed spokesperson for Anonymous. They all copy off each other.
You did also call yourself Cobra Commander at one point.
Oh yeah, I called myself that after the NBC Nightly news called me the “underground commander in a new warfare.” Which is just a ridiculous thing to be called.
Yes, it sure is. What do you think of your 100-year sentence?
I’ve known for a long time that I was going to be incarcerated. There are several documentaries where I say that I’m going to jail at some point. You just can’t do these things and not fall on the radar of the FBI without retaliation or reprisal. I don’t want to talk to you about the case or the people involved at this point, but obviously I’m not terribly worried about it.
Why aren’t you worried?
Just because of my knowledge, I know how long they were in there monitoring our stuff… I know what documents and records of my activities are available. They’re trying to claim that I intentionally tried to spread credit card information, but I was opposed to that. And I was on record being opposed to it. They’re just not aware of that.
They don’t have their shit together in terms of going through what they spied on me regarding… and I obviously know what’s there in that evidence, so… I’ve always been opposed to spreading credit cards.
Why Is Barrett Brown Facing 100 Years in Prison?
It was announced on Wednesday morning that Barrett Brown, a man who became a very public talking head for AnonOps (the brain trust that is arguably the cortex of the hacktivist group Anonymous, even though theretechnically isn’t one) is facing up to 100 years in jail for three separate indictments. The most recent two indictments—the threatening of an FBI officer in a YouTube video and the concealing of evidence—do not seem worthy of such a harsh sentence, considering a man in Houston recieved only 42 months for threatening to blow up an FBI building, and a former dentist got 18 months for threatening to kill an FBI agent. The third, however, pertains to Barrett Brown’s pasting of a link in an Anonymous IRC chat room to a document full of credit card numbers and their authentication codes that was stolen from the security company Stratfor, in the midst of a hack that released over five million internal emails. Those emails were published to Wikileaks. Some writers have rightfully raised their concerns about the legalities behind sharing a link that points to stolen material (which is why I have not linked to those five million emails) and whether or not that should be an indictable offense. However, Barrett’s work and research into Stratfor tells a much more complicated and disturbing story than a pile of stolen Visa cards.
Is the Russian Mormon Church an FBI Front?
The Young Guard is the youth wing of President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia Party. They’ve tended to exist as a less intense, less Hitler Youth-like version of Nashi, a similar Kremlin-backed, pro-Putin youth movement that intimidates people who oppose Putin’s policies, go to rallies dressed as Star Wars storm troopers to distract from anti-government protesters, and, allegedly, beat up critical journalists to within an inch of their lives.
Since part of the Young Guard’s role is to prepare young people to discharge their civic duties as stoogesof the Putinist junta, they need to maintain an air of respectability. Not that this has stopped them propagating Putin’s cult of personality by making a video reenacting his most famous publicity stunts with sexy young women in the role of Vlad.
However, being respectable isn’t the same as being sane. Responding to Putin’s recent statement on the need to “confront totalitarian sects” operating in Russia, instead of looking in a mirror and repeatedly slapping themselves, the Young Guard turned up to Mormon meeting houses last week in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities and picketed them, accusing Mormons of being “foreign agents” paid by the USA to brainwash young Russians. They also claimed that many young Mormon missionaries return to America to become members of the FBI and CIA.
When I heard that a group of brainwashed idiots were picking on another group of brainwashed idiots, I felt confused and sad at how stupid the whole world is. So I decided to talk to Elena Nechiporova, the Russian press contact for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The Young Guard presented the Mormon missionaries with a “one way plane ticket back to Washington,” complete with CIA logo.
VICE: Hi Elena, how are you?
Elena Nechiporova: I’m doing great, thanks.
Great. So you’re not lying in a pool of your own blood after the Young Guard brutalized you, or anything?
No. They just picketed our meeting houses, but nothing was happening there on that day anyway. The picket was peaceful.
I see. Why do you think they are targeting the Mormons?
That question should be addressed to the Young Guard. We’ve never had contact with them before this. I don’t think they know anything about who we are or what we believe. We’re happy to start a dialog with them, though. We have a lot of smart and worthy young people in the church who are the same age as Young Guard members. They’d have a lot of things in common to discuss.