Lawless Spying in America to Obstruct First Amendment Freedoms

Stephen Lendman

[First Amendment to the United States Constitution]

"In a climate of fear and intimidation, national security concerns are trampling core legal principles, the rule of law losing out to war on terror hysteria and unchecked powers. As a result, protected freedoms are fast eroding, key among them First Amendment rights without which all others are at risk."

The ACLU has released numerous reports of illegal spying. They include federal, state and local SARs (suspicious activity reporting) programs that encourage police, intelligence and homeland security officials, emergency responders, and members of the public to spy on neighbors, reporting any "suspicious" activities to authorities.

In an environment of fear, commonplace activities may be misinterpreted, increasing chances to get innocent people on terrorist watch lists. As a result, their names and vital information will be in law enforcement/intelligence data bases, their personal safety and reputations jeopardized.

Using new intelligence sharing systems like fusion centers enables easy access of Joint Terrorism Task Forces and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Information Sharing Environment (ISE), as well as local police-collected information.

In Terry v. Ohio (1968), the Supreme Court established "reasonable suspicion" of criminal activity as the standard for police stops to investigate further. Under Title 28, Part 23 of the Code of Federal Regulations, law enforcement agencies getting federal funds "shall collect and maintain criminal intelligence information (on an individual) only if there is reasonable suspicion (of involvement) in criminal conduct or activity," and what's collected is relevant.

SARs, however, threaten civil liberties by encouraging indiscriminate spying, jeopardizing innocent people unfairly.

They're similar to various Bush administration schemes, including:

a signing statement to the 2006 Postal Accountability Act giving the president authority to order opening US citizens' mail without a warrant;

sweeping warrantless wiretapping and other surveillance in violation of FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), amended in 2008 to let telecom companies spy on their customers for the government;

Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System), encouraging private citizens, including postal employees, to report "unusual" neighborhood activities;

the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness (TIA), renamed Terrorism Information Awareness to monitor anyone suspected of terrorism or activities related to it;

the Pentagon's Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) program, amassing a huge data base by domestic spying, done spuriously against anyone suspected of terrorism; and

the Transportation Security Agency's SPOT program (Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques), using behavioral detection officers to identify threats by observing and reporting suspicious behavior based on unscientific behavioral indicators.

Policing Free Speech

On June 29, an ACLU report titled, "Policing Free Speech: Police Surveillance and Obstruction of First Amendment-Protected Activity" highlighted the present danger. It also cited the long history of America's law enforcement agencies illegally spying on US citizens and obstructing lawful political activity. It "was rampant during the Cold War under the FBI's COINTELPRO, the CIA's Operation Chaos, and other programs," continuing now more obtrusively than ever under new names or none at all.

As a result, "Law enforcement agencies across America continue to monitor and harass groups and individuals for....peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights," eroding and gravely endangered.

In recent years, federal as well as in at least 33 states and the District of Columbia, Americans have been surveilled, otherwise monitored or harassed by police for engaging in marches, protests, organizing, having "unusual viewpoints, and engag(ing) in normal, innocuous behaviors such as writing notes or taking photographs in public.

In the past year, at least four Fushion Center reports are troubling:

the Virginia Fushion Center's Homegrown Terrorism Document;
the Texas Fushion Center's Prevention Awareness Bulletin;
the Missouri Fushion Center's Document on the Modern Militia Movement; and
in Massachusetts, the Commonwealth Fushion Center's Standard Operating Procedures.

Below is a list of known states where the ACLU found incidents of political spying unrelated to lawlessness.

In Alaska, Military Intelligence Spied on Planned Parenthood and other groups ahead of the 2002 Salt Lake City winter Olympics, and on Alaskans for Peace and Justice in 2005. In 2007, various groups' cellphone calls were monitored. These are examples of more widespread, continuing practices in the state.

In Arizona, University of Arizona police arrested a student for "using sidewalk chalk to advertise a protest."

In California, an FBI agent admitted in court in 2009 that an informant was planted in an Irvine Islamic Center.

"Surveillance has prompted some Muslims to avoid mosques and cut charitable contributions out of fear of being questioned" or called "extremists."

LAPD Special Order # 11, dated March 5, 2008 (Los Angeles police), lists 65 behaviors to report, including First Amendment ones like using binoculars, taking photos or videos, taking notes, and espousing "extremist" views.

In 2006, the Los Angeles Times got Homeland Security reports on persons or groups participating in lawful demonstrations, including anti-war and for animal rights. Protests of various other activist organizations were also spied on throughout the state. During huge anti-war San Francisco 2002 and 2003 demonstrations, police posed as protesters to monitor crowd activities. Muslim groups were also surveilled in Los Angeles, San Diego and elsewhere in the state. Since 9/11, they've unfairly been designated enemy number one for their faith, many falsely arrested, convicted and imprisoned for being Muslim at the wrong time in America.

In Colorado, in 2005, FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) agents monitored the American Indian Movement, as well as peace and environmental groups on suspicions of "domestic terrorism." In 2003, law enforcement agents infiltrated the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and other peace and social justice groups.

In Colorado Springs, in 2002, police collected names and license plate numbers of environmental and conservationist groups engaging in peaceful demonstrations. In 2002, a pro-Palestinian Denver rally was monitored as well as others for suspected "anarchists" and eight categories of "extremists" for peace. In addition, for environmental and animal rights issues, and justice for Black Americans.

FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force agents also spied on Food Not Bombs, a Colorado group providing free vegetarian food to hungry people and engaging in protests against war and poverty - considered "terrorism" today in America, making nonviolent activists vulnerable, especially if minorities or Muslims.

In Hartford, Connecticut, police arrested an activist for photographing Governor Jodi Rell at a public event because information on his blog expressed criticism.

In Florida, peace activists were placed on a government watchlist for distributing information about conscientious objection to military recruiters and interested civilians. The Defense Department listed a Broward County Anti-War Coalition in a TALON database for protesting at a Florida air and sea show.

In Georgia, Georgia State University Students for Peace and Justice were included in the same database. Post-9/11, School of the Americas (SOA) Watch peaceful protests and civil disobedience acts were reclassified from "Routine" to "Priority," subject to "Counterrorism" monitoring. In DeKalb County, a vegetarian activist was arrested for writing down the license plate number of a DHS agent who monitored her peaceful protesting. The state FBI Field Intelligence Group lists Green Party members as potential eco-terrorists for supporting environmental and animal rights.

In Idaho, members of the Progressive Student Alliance, a non-partisan group focusing on social, economic, gender, and environmental justice were questioned by FBI agents for boycotting TACO Bell to protest conditions of Immokalee workers in Florida.

In Illinois, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is listed in the Defense Department's TALON database for planning protests at a Springfield recruiting center. In Chicago, police conducted a three-day manhunt for a "Middle Eastern" man in traditional clothing after being notified that a passenger on a bus he was riding on said he was clicking a hand counter on board. An investigation discovered he used it to keep track of his daily prayers, a common Muslim practice.

In Indianapolis, Indiana, at the 2003 National Governors Association (NGA) meeting, police confronted nonviolent demonstrators disruptively, several suing on First Amendment grounds. On February 9, 2005, the US District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled in favor of protestors, a rare good guys victory.

In Iowa, in February 2004, four Drake University peace activists got federal grand jury subpoenas relating to a National Lawyers Guild campus seminar on nonviolent civil disobedience. In Iowa City, FBI and local authorities infiltrated peace groups ahead of the Republican National Convention to preemptively disrupt them.

In Kansas, police train maintenance staff of apartment complexes, as well as motels and storage facilities to watch for "printed terrorist materials and propaganda."

In Kentucky, a protestant minister was placed on an FBI watch list for ordering books online about Islam. In fall 2004, he was detained by Canadian border officials while trying to enter the country for sightseeing. He'd never been arrested, charged with a crime, or participated in a protest.

In Louisiana, the Defense Department classified Veterans for Peace as a threat to DOD personnel after participating in a New Orleans anti-war rally.

In Maine, FBI agents intercepted Veterans for Peace, Pax Christi Maine, the Maine Coalition for Peace & Justice and other activist groups' emails pertaining to planned protests at the Brunswick Naval Air Show and against the christening of an Arleigh Burke Class destroyer.

In Maryland, state police spied on more than 30 activist groups, mostly peace organizations and anti-death penalty advocates, sharing information with local authorities and the FBI.

In Massachusetts, the FBI recruited a University of Massachusetts police officer to work several days a week for its Anti-Terrorism Task Force (ATTF). Undercover Harvard University police were caught photographing people at a peaceful protest. A university spokesman refused comment about the school's affiliation with intelligence gathering or the targeting of local activists.

The state's ACLU also learned that the Commonwealth Fusion Center's "Standard Operating Procedures" let undercover police gather intelligence at public meetings even when there's no suspicion of illegal activity.

In Michigan, in April 2009, the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan wrote Attorney General Eric Holder after mosques and Muslim groups reported their members being asked to spy on others coming there.

In Minnesota, FBI agents tried to get an arrested University of Minnesota student to go undercover at "vegan pot-lucks" to spy on groups organizing protests. The weekend before the start of the 2008 Republican National Convention, local and federal authorities conducted preemptive raids and arrests against activist groups to disrupt their ability to stage protests. After it began, mass arrests followed. Hundreds were targeted violently for their nonviolent demonstrations.

In Missouri, the February Fushion Center report on "the modern militia movement" claimed members usually support presidential candidates Ron Paul, Chuck Baldwin and Bob Barr.

In New Jersey, in 2004, the ACLU made public requests to the state's 50 largest municipalities for documents disclosing criteria and other information used to identify individuals as "potential threat elements." Eight refused saying they're exempt under New Jersey's Open Public Records Act.

In New Mexico, Veterans for Peace was placed in the Defense Department's database, saying its protests "could become violent." In March 2003, Albuquerque police attended anti-war protest organizing meetings undercover to gather intelligence on participants.

In New York, Pentagon spies monitored a Veterans for Peace lecture. The Defense Department also placed the War Resisters League in its TALON database, saying CODEPINK and United for Peace and Justice operate the same way. Ahead of the 2004 state Republican National Convention, undercover NYPD officers monitored activists nationwide, infiltrating hundreds of groups planning to attend protests.

A Syracuse University Muslim-American student was prevented by Veterans Affairs police from photographing flags in front of a VA building as part of a class assignment. After interrogation, her digital photos were deleted.

In North Carolina, a honorably discharged army veteran married to an active duty spouse was placed under Pentagon surveillance for participating in a Fort Bragg protest led by veterans and military families. Another planned protest was listed in TALON's database even though determined to be peaceful and unthreatening.

In Ohio, a "Stop the War NOW!" protest was listed in the TALON database as a potential terrorist threat. Its purpose was to read names of war dead in front of the Akron federal building and a military recruiting station.

In Oregon, in April 2005, Portland became the first US city to withdraw from JTTF law enforcement participation. In May 2008, a Federal Protective Service officer went undercover against a peaceful anti-pesticide Eugene rally. City police made one arrest.

In Pennsylvania, FBI agents investigated Thomas Merton Center for Peace & Justice gatherings because the group opposed the Iraq war. An FBI memo called TMC "a left-wing organization advocating, among many political causes, pacifism."

A Penn State University student was arrested in Philadelphia for photographing police activity in his neighborhood with a cell phone camera. Threats but no charges against him included conspiracy, impeding police and obstruction of justice.

In Pittsburgh, the US Department of Energy revoked the security clearance of a Muslim American employee with 18 years of service for making critical public comments about the FBI's treatment of people of his faith.

In Rhode Island, the Community Coalition for Peace was placed in the TALON database for protesting outside a National Guard recruitment station. Comments about the group said commanders and staff were alerted "to (their) potential terrorist activity" and other "force protection issues."

In Texas, in February 2009, a DHS-supported North Central Texas Fusion System intelligence bulletin described a purported conspiracy between Muslim civil rights organizations, lobbying groups, anti-war activists, a former congresswoman, US Treasury Department, and hip hop bands. In Austin, a counter-recruitment/anti-war recruitment station protest was listed in the TALON database. In addition, an Al-Jazeera television crew was prevented from filming on a public road over a mile from a nuclear power plant. Extensive background checks were conducted uncovering "no criminal history or other problems."

In Utah, the US Joint Forces Command liaison and FBI Olympic Intelligence Center collected and disseminated information on Planned Parenthood and National Alliance members, regarding their involvement in 2002 Olympics protests and literature distributions.

In Virginia, the state Fushion Center's March 2008 terrorism threat assessment called state universities and colleges "nodes for radicalization." It also described the "diversity" surrounding a Virginia military base and black colleges as possible security threats. One man was arrested, but not charged, for videotaping the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

In Washington, a civilian Fort Lewis Force Protection employee posed undercover as an anarchist to participate in Olympia Port Militarization Resistance activities from 2007 - 2009. In addition, police stopped a University of Washington Associate Fine Arts Professor for photographing power lines as part of a school project. She was searched, handcuffed, and held in a police car for 30 minutes before being released, police saying FBI agents would contact her about the incident.

An Evergreen State College student was arrested en route to a Port of Grays Harbor anti-war protest, police acknowledging he and others had been watched, calling them "known anarchists." No charges were filed.

In Washington, DC, a City Council committee said Metropolitan Police used undercover officers to infiltrate protest groups without evidence of wrongdoing. Making arrests, they also preemptively prevented demonstrations, denying participants free expression and assembly rights.

DHS also tracked a DC Anti-War Network's protest plans, informed the Maryland state police who'd labeled the activists terrorists. In October 2003, the FBI's Intelligence Bulletin No. 89 titled, "Tactics Used During Protests and Demonstrations," included Internet recruitment activity, fund raising, false documentation to access secure facilities, marches, banners, sit-ins, vandalism, physical harassment, and trespassing. No effort was made to distinguish between protected speech and potential criminal activity.

In Wisconsin, a DHS Intelligence official assigned to the Statewide Information Center produced a "threat assessment" with regard to a February 2009 rally involving local pro-and anti-choice groups even though neither posed a domestic threat.

Nationally, DHS reports warn that "right-wing extremists" might recruit and radicalize "disgruntled military veterans." DHS's Contractor Eco-Terrorism Report called the Sierra Club, Humane Society, Audubon Society, and similar groups "mainstream organizations with known or possible links to eco-terrorism."

DHS' "Protective Intelligence Bulletin designated CODEPINK, Iraq Pledge of Resistance and DAWN groups "civil activist and extremist," planning dozens of nationwide anti-war demonstrations. The FBI lists the Green Party as a potential Eco-Terrorist target. In October, DHS sent a report titled, "Nation of Islam: Uncertain Leadership Succession Poses Risks" to hundreds of federal officials despite Department guidelines designating the files for destruction because the group's assessment lasted over 180 days without evidence of wrongdoing uncovered.

A Final Comment

For many decades, and especially post-9/11, illegal spying on Americans has persisted, disrupting their speech, assembly, and other freedoms. They're fast eroding as the nation slips further toward repression, using a homeland police state apparatus against individuals or groups opposing the destruction of their constitutionally protected rights more than ever under threat.

In a climate of fear and intimidation, national security concerns are trampling core legal principles, the rule of law losing out to war on terror hysteria and unchecked powers. As a result, protected freedoms are fast eroding, key among them First Amendment rights without which all others are at risk.


Stephen Lendman: I was born in 1934 in Boston, MA. Raised in a modest middle class family, attended public schools, received a BA from Harvard University in 1956 and an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of PA in 1960 following 2 years of obligatory military service in the US Army. Spent the next 6 years as a marketing research analyst for several large US corporations before becoming part of a new small family business in 1967, remaining there until retiring at the end of 1999. Have since devoted my time and efforts to the progressive causes and organizations I support, all involved in working for a more humane and just world for all people everywhere, but especially for the most needy, disadvantaged and oppressed. My efforts since summer 2005 have included writing on a broad range of vital topics ranging from war and peace; social, economic and political equity for all; and justice for all the oppressed peoples of the world like the long-suffering people of Haiti and the Palestinians. Also co-hosting The Global Research News Hour, occasional public talks, and frequent appearances on radio and at times television.

Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at Also visit his blog site and listen to The Lendman News Hour on Monday - Friday at 10AM US Central time for cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on world and national issues. All programs are archived for easy listening.



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