FBI Infiltrated Iowa Anti-War Group Before GOP Convention
An FBI informant and an
undercover Minnesota sheriff's deputy spied on political activists in
Iowa City last year before the Republican National Convention in St.
Confidential FBI documents obtained by The Des
Moines Register show an FBI informant was planted among a group
described as an "anarchist collective" that met regularly last year in
Iowa City. One of the group's goals was to organize street blockades to
disrupt the Republican convention, held Sept. 1-4, 2008, where U.S.
Sen. John McCain was nominated for president.
undercover Minnesota deputy who traveled to Iowa City was from the
Ramsey County Sheriff's Department, which infiltrated a group known as
the "RNC Welcoming Committee" that was coordinating convention protest
activities in St. Paul.
The undercover officer accompanied two
activists from the Twin Cities who attended the University of Iowa in
April 2008 for a Midwest campus anti-war conference.
City Police Department was not aware that an FBI informant was
monitoring local anti-war activists last year, Police Chief Samuel
Hargadine said. But he confirmed to the Register that he was notified
by Ramsey County authorities last year that they were sending an
undercover officer to Iowa City.
said about 800 convention protesters were arrested last September in
St. Paul, although most charges have since been dismissed.
3,700 police officers - many in riot gear and some on horses - used
tear gas, pepper spray and other methods to control protesters and
quell disturbances. Demonstrators shattered glass windows at retail
stores, and some threw feces and urine at police, authorities said.
25 members of Iowa City activist groups participated in the St. Paul
demonstrations, but Iowa organizers said they were aware of only one
Iowa City demonstrator who was arrested. Those charges were
key focus of the protests was anti-war sentiment, but the activists had
other causes, such as environmental issues and helping poor people.
Most of the Iowa City activists did not attend the Democratic National
Convention held in Denver, Colo.
ACLU: Is spying's focus safety - or politics?
The use of undercover
informants to spy on political dissidents is a contentious issue. Law
enforcement officials contend it is sometimes necessary, but civil
libertarians are wary of such tactics as potentially violating people's
The FBI documents provide in-depth
descriptions of more than a dozen Iowa political activists. This
includes personal information such as names, height, weight, place of
employment, cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses. The documents also
include individuals' plans for the convention demonstrations.
Some of the surveillance occurred when the activists met last year at the Iowa City Public Library.
FBI documents show the investigative reports were written in August
2008 by Special Agent Thomas Reinwart, who is assigned to Cedar Rapids,
based on reports from a "confidential human source" in Iowa City.
spokeswoman Sandy Breault in Omaha declined to talk about the documents
or whether the agency used undercover informants to conduct
surveillance on anti-war groups in Iowa City.
legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, obtained
copies of FBI documents involving surveillance of the Iowa City
activists independently of the Register.
Wilson said he believes
the FBI was "ostensibly investigating the possibility that some of
these people might cross the line and engage in civil disobedience."
But, he said, "My main concern is that they were really spying on people who were in the political opposition."
Protest participants denounce monitoring
Russell Porter, director of
the Iowa Department of Public Safety's Intelligence Bureau, declined to
comment specifically on whether law enforcement officers monitored Iowa
political activists who planned protests at the Republican National
But, he added, "If people are planning criminal
activity, we would be interested in having people report that
information to us and share that with us."
who coordinates Iowa law enforcement intelligence efforts with local,
state and federal agencies, said routine Iowa political activities are
not the focus of undercover investigations.
"When this work is
done well, it keeps the community safe. But central to it is ensuring
that we adhere and follow a solemn obligation to protect those
principles enumerated in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution," he
David Goodner, 28, a University of Iowa senior who
participated in the demonstrations in St. Paul, condemned the
is no justification for spying on nonviolent pacifist groups," Goodner
said. "Our road blockade at the RNC and our peaceful preparations
beforehand are protected under the First Amendment of the U.S.
Constitution. We have the right to speak out against the policies of
our government. The criminalization of dissent and militarization of
society are the actions of a police state, and they take valuable
resources away from providing for unmet social needs. The FBI's motives
and methods are extremely unethical and go against basic American
"Ajax" Ehl, 39, of Iowa City, who also participated in the Republican
convention protests in St. Paul, said he was surprised to learn
afterward that the FBI had used an informant to monitor political
activists in Iowa City.
"It's pretty ridiculous to be watching
small peace groups in Iowa," Ehl said. "There are not a lot of bomb
throwers in Iowa City."
FBI report describes appearances, interests
The FBI documents described
the Iowa City political activists as aligning themselves with one of
three "risk" zones in preparing for the Republican National Convention.
Some members were interested in protest activities and involvement in
"affinity groups," such as a legal collective, a medic group and a
media group. Others were described as peaceful protesters. But a third
unit of activists was willing to risk arrest and potential involvement
in criminal activities, according to the documents.
names of protesters were blacked out of the copy of the FBI documents
obtained by the Register, but the dossiers included personal facts.
example, one woman was described as white, 5 feet 10 inches, 140
pounds, with blond hair and glasses. The report said she lived in Cedar
Rapids, and it provided her cell phone number. She was characterized as
a member of a specific subgroup who had interests in medic training and
as a legal observer.
"She drives a little, dark green four door hatchback," the report said.
white man in his 20s who had recently moved to Iowa from Mississippi
was also profiled by the FBI informant. "He is planning on attending
the RNC and participating with the 'Queer Block' and 'Bash Back,' which
are groups affiliated with the lesbian, bi-sexual, gay and transgender
movement. Several hundred people associated with these two groups plan
on doing their own thing and blocking an unknown (intersection)," the
The report told of a protest strategy at the
Republican National Convention known as "swarm, seize and stay," which
would involve thousands of demonstrators.
This included a mass text-messaging program through cell phones of participants to coordinate the locations.
Activists say "Jason" likely was informant
In late August, before the
Republican convention, authorities conducted a series of raids in
Minneapolis and St. Paul as a pre-emptive strike against disruptive
County Sheriff Bob Fletcher told reporters that the raids targeted the
RNC Welcoming Committee, which he described as a "criminal enterprise"
intent on blockading and disabling delegate buses, breaching venue
security and injuring police officers. Authorities said they seized
items that included buckets of urine, a gas mask, bolt cutters, axes,
slingshots and spikes for puncturing bus tires.
of the RNC Welcoming Committee still face felony charges of conspiracy
to riot and conspiracy to commit criminal damage to property. None of
the eight is from Iowa. Separately, two men from a Texas group that
went to St. Paul to protest the convention have pleaded guilty to
federal charges after being accused of making Molotov cocktails -
gasoline-filled bottles with wicks. Prosecutors said the two men
intended to used the incendiary devices to hurt police or destroy
activists Ehl and Goodner said they believe they know the identity of
the FBI informant who spied on the Iowa City protesters.
say it was a young man from Michigan named "Jason" who claimed he was a
U.S. military conscientious objector. He told people he had been
discharged from the Air Force after he objected to being deployed to
The man hung out with Iowa City activists for months,
sharing beers and meals with them while expressing solidarity with
their political beliefs.
Goodner and Ehl said "Jason" later admitted that he provided information to the FBI in exchange for money.
"It is my understanding that he just took money because he was unemployed," Ehl said.
back, the surveillance in Iowa City may have begun as early as the fall
of 2007, Goodner said. He and three others from Iowa City traveled to
St. Paul for a meeting with the RNC Welcoming Committee. A few weeks
later, "Jason" started coming to their meetings in Iowa City.
didn't think anything of it," said Goodner, who was the Midwest
regional coordinator for the Campus Antiwar Network and is a past
member of the Register's Young Adult Board of Contributors.
Undercover officer came to Iowa City
Hargadine, the Iowa City police chief, said he was not told the gender or identity of the undercover officer from Ramsey County.
political activists in Iowa City and Minnesota have said she was a
middle-aged woman known by the pseudonym "Norma Jean Johnson."
attended the Campus Antiwar Network Midwest Regional Conference, held
April 18-20, 2008, at the University of Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa
City. About 150 people from Iowa and other states attended.
Star Tribune of Minneapolis has reported that "Norma Jean Johnson" was
Ramsey County Deputy Sheriff Marilyn Hedstrom, who infiltrated the RNC
Welcoming Committee. Ramsey County sheriff's spokeswoman Holli
Drinkwine confirmed last week that Hedstrom worked as an undercover
officer who investigated the RNC Welcoming Committee.
Drinkwine said she did not know whether Hedstrom had worked undercover
in Iowa City. Hedstrom recently received a 2009 Excellence in
Performance Award from the Minnesota Association of Women Police.
Political activist Goodner said he recalled seeing "Norma Jean Johnson" at the anti-war conference in Iowa City.
accompanied two members of the RNC Welcoming Committee and she helped
with a slide show, but she said little and left the speaking to others,
he said. He said the woman stayed at a hotel rather than sleeping for
free on somebody's couch in Iowa City, which should have been a tip-off
she wasn't a typical political activist.
"Because she came down here with two people who we did know, we just trusted them," Goodner said.
Anti-war surveillance in U.S. and Iowa
The FBI has a history of conducting surveillance on political groups in the United States and in Iowa.
1956 and 1971, the FBI operated a counterintelligence program known as
COINTELPRO, which was aimed at infiltrating and disrupting dissident
political organizations. The targets included foes of the Vietnam War
and civil rights groups.
Civil liberties groups have expressed
worries that since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, law
enforcement agencies have used security concerns as reason to increase
monitoring of law-abiding citizens and organizations.
November 2003, the Polk County Sheriff's Department sent two undercover
officers to monitor an anti-war conference at Drake University in Des
Moines. Sheriff's officials said they had no plans to spy on the local
peace movement. Instead, authorities wanted to learn about potential
problems in a protest planned for the next day at Iowa National Guard
headquarters in Johnston.
In February 2004, federal authorities
launched an investigation into the November anti-war conference at
Drake. They issued grand jury subpoenas to four peace activists and to
the university, asking for records of a student law group that
sponsored the event. Prosecutors also obtained a gag order on Drake
Less than a week after the federal investigation
became public, the U.S. attorney's office in Des Moines withdrew the
gag order and the subpoenas without explanation. In August 2004, a
young female FBI undercover informant from Florida named "Anna"
attended an anarchist conference in Des Moines, where she met a
California activist named Eric T. McDavid, according to federal court
documents. She had reportedly been traveling throughout the country
attempting to infiltrate protest groups and targeting young males, in
particular, who had anarchist beliefs.
"Anna" was subsequently a
key witness in a highly publicized trial in Sacramento, Calif., that
led to the September 2007 conviction of McDavid, now 31, for conspiring
to blow up a Northern California dam, a genetics lab, cell phone towers
and other targets. FBI agents described the case as an eco-terrorism
plot on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front. McDavid is now serving
nearly a 20-year federal prison term. His defense lawyer has argued his
client was a victim of entrapment by the FBI informant.