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Anti-Terrorism Tip: Quit Spying on Nonviolent Activists

Jeff Cohen

They're at it again.

FBI agents in recent weeks have been visiting and interrogating dozens of young activists believed to be planning or considering protests at the Democrat and Republican conventions. The New York Times exposed the FBI's home visits and intimidating interviews last week in a report headlined "FBI Goes Knocking for Political Troublemakers" -- those last two words tell us more about Times bias than about the activists in question.

With Al Qaeda and similar terrorists bent on murdering as many ordinary Americans as possible, why would the FBI divert resources and personnel to protesters and nonviolent civil disobedients?

It's the ultimate question. But it's not a new one: In the fall of 2001, with Al Qaeda on the verge of attacking us, why was the FBI so passive about leads that might have thwarted the attack -- yet so aggressive in hounding prostitutes in New Orleans and medical marijuana suppliers in California?

Or going further back: While Ku Klux Klansmen were murdering civil rights activists in the South 40 years ago, why was the FBI deploying far more resources and agents to monitor Martin Luther King, his associates and sex partners than the Klan?

The truth is that spying on political dissenters (or harassing prostitutes and pot providers) is much easier than going after violent criminals and terrorists. Political spying can make agents and cops feel righteous about protecting the social order against "troublemakers." But mostly, it's safer. Send a spy into a Quaker group or the Ruckus Society and the worst they'll endure is an endless meeting in search of consensus. Send a spy into the Klan or Al Qaeda and it's a life or death proposition.

While the ideological subterfuge has changed from "anti-communism" in the '50s to "law and order" in the '60s to "anti-terrorism," the impulse to spy on dissenters (especially on critics of the FBI or police) is almost always about propping up the status quo and almost never about preventing violence.

I know of what I write. My nonviolent political activities were monitored for years by multiple police agencies -- city, state and federal -- and I've reviewed many of the "intelligence" files. As a journalist and lawyer, I spent years investigating police and FBI spying.

As a teenager in Detroit, because I borrowed my father's car to attend civil rights and antiwar gatherings (including one co-organized by John Kerry), the Michigan State Police launched a political dossier on ... my dad. It was a total mistake. Sol Cohen was no card-carrying activist; the only cards he carried were Visa and American Express. Yet he was one of 38,000 people subjected to dossiers in Michigan from 1950 to 1974, when a judge put the "Red Squad" out of business and ordered the files released. Not one of the 38,000 had been indicted for a crime.

One part of my dad's file chronicles a ridiculous day-long surveillance by three Detroit police officers who tailed two left-wing activists around the city by car, writing down such quaint details as: "BRV 248 parks at Church's Fired Chicken on Davison. Subjects ordering food to go." The year was 1974. Detroit had one of the worst violent crime rates in the country -- but the three officers were not assigned to stop violence, just politics.

After I moved to Los Angeles, my tennis partner turned out to be an undercover LAPD officer. She had a crush on me. Mercifully, it wasn't mutual.

As a lawyer, I was part of a massive ACLU suit against LAPD spying, which uncovered that Big Brother was taking notes on Jesse Jackson, Jackson Browne, Cesar Chavez, Susan Sarandon, Stevie Wonder (he was labeled a "socialist" for performing at an anti-nuclear event), L.A.'s black mayor and thousands of activists. It was a huge spy operation without any focus on crime or violence.

Our LAPD lawsuit did surface the name of one individual who had indeed led a hostage-taking terror group: Donald "Cinque" DeFreeze, of the Symbionese Liberation Army. His name surfaced when a police supervisor admitted under oath that DeFreeze had himself been an LAPD undercover informant prior to forming the SLA.

Because the impulse of law-enforcement to spy on dissent (and divert resources from more daunting and violent threats) is so powerful, it's easier to change names than habits or mission. Nearly two decades before the 9/11 attacks, L.A's tarnished Intelligence Division renamed itself the "Anti-Terrorist Division."

All the things that conservatives claim they hate about "big government" -- wasting tax dollars, bureaucracy, bungling, invasive -- apply many times over to police and FBI spying. Yet here we go again.

With our country facing a genuine and lethal threat from Al Qaeda-style terrorism, John Ashcroft's FBI -- in league with local police agencies egged-on by the Bureau -- is deploying agents and resources to save America from the Black Bloc, from teen-aged anarchists, from anti-corporate-globalization militants who take glee in breaking a window or two at McDonald's or Starbucks.

After 9/11, many wondered what the CIA and FBI were so distracted by that they could miss all the pre-attack chatter. Thinking back on the official paranoia and reaction over global justice protests in Seattle, D.C., Quebec City, Genoa and elsewhere, is it unreasonable to suspect that these intelligence agencies had become distracted by largely nonviolent activists who stalked IMF and WTO meetings?

How many agents and how many millions of dollars will be diverted to surveillance of these activists and to anti-Bush protesters in the coming weeks? The go-ahead to monitor and intimidate protesters, according to a document obtained by the New York Times, has come from none other than Ashcroft's Office of Legal Counsel, the same office that authorized torture against detainees in U.S. custody.

The right to dissent is up for grabs in America today, and on Election Day. Progressives have rightfully criticized John Kerry over his Bush-lite positions on several issues, but here is one on which Kerry and Bush seem miles apart. While Bush has unleashed Ashcroft against nonviolent activists, Kerry knows what it's like to be a victim of political spying -- having been heavily targeted by the Nixon gang and the FBI in the early '70s.

There's an eight-letter word that spells out why Bush needs to be replaced on November 2nd: A-S-H-C-R-O-F-T.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is an activist and author. Cohen was an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC (overseen by NBC News). He is the author of "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media" - and a co-founder of the online action group, His website is

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