I feel like this story (also told here and here and here and several other places in the past few years), about the new levels of law-enforcement surveillance of activists, dissidents, and people who are weird but not particularly dangerous, has been following me for years.
Local police, sheriff’s, and fire departments have been conducting raids and surprise fire inspections on protest gathering places throughout St. Paul and Minneapolis today, including at least three private homes and this old theater at 627 Smith Avenue... The busted buildings were to serve as meeting points, food distribution centers, internet sites, and bunkhouses for visiting protestors... While we were standing there, Noah Kunin—a local video blogger from The Uptake—got a call from his editor: The local IndyMedia offices had just been popped with a surprise fire inspection.
That seemed odd.
Then there was the overzealous police action during the convention itself. Journalists were arrested, including folks from the AP and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Teenagers were stomped—literally—while trying leave marches. There was Elliot Hughes, who was arrested for... well, it's hard to say what he was arrested for—you can see the video of his arrest here—and treated horribly while in custody. He claimed the police shoved a bag over his head and practiced their "pain compliance techniques" on him.
The police were also very liberal with the pepper spray—I saw several non-protesters doused and hauled into clouds of tear gas by police wearing gas masks. I was completely soaked, from the crown of my head to the depths of my underwear to the pepper spray sloshing around in my shoes, and nearly arrested just for standing near a protest and taking notes. (This was after I had shown the police officers my perfectly valid press credentials, issued by the RNC.)
Law-enforcement—which included not just Minneapolis-St. Paul police, but officers hired for the week from all over the country—acted like they expected a war to break out in the streets. They seemed less interested in crowd-control than in treating their fellow Americans (protesters and journalists) like enemy insurgents.
It was very confusing and sinister. I've never been anti-cop. I come from a law-enforcement and military family going back generations. Individual cops can be cruel, corrupt, and overzealous... but this seemed systemic. I've always believed that the social contract of American democracy wasn't perfect, but basically sound. That there would be abuses here and there—because no system is perfect—but that we were basically on the right track. We were getting past Jim Crow and segregation, getting past the greed-is-good moronism of the 1980s, getting past the manufactured hysteria of the Red Scare and Nixon and COINTELPRO. We were making slow progress.
But then, after seeing the stuff that happened around the convention, I wondered if I had been naïve all along.
Second: There was a series on tainted cocaine that I worked on, which showed evidence of law enforcement run amok, pushing to escalate the drug war—not because it's effective, but because it has created perverse incentives for law enforcement and private security contractors. (And, incidentally, the narcos.) In reporting on the stories, I talked to several ex-law enforcement officials and former drug warriors who'd come to the conclusion that drug prohibition and heavy funding of enforcement was counter-productive. That their years of dedicated service had hurt, not helped, their own attempts to create stability and safety for civilians.
Third:The Long Con, a story I wrote about the FBI working with local law enforcement to go after people who had been involved in political protest. (And other things, like very small-stakes gambling at private parties and very small-stakes drug use.) The lead undercover officer in that investigation tried to get his targets to do extreme things—he wanted to know all about the Earth Liberation Front, encouraged people to do "real activism" like property damage, and hinted at darker actions and who could get him guns. His targets, who thought the undercover was their friend, all demurred. They didn't want to burn down CEO's houses and asked among themselves: What's with this guy?
The investigation lasted two years, discovered nothing of significance, and ended up with a few arrests for penny-ante gambling charges that nobody had been indicted for in 10 years—clearly, not a law-enforcement priority. (There were also some cocaine-related arrests, but that was a by-product of, and not the reason for, the investigation.) Some of those arrested had been protesters I'd seen while covering the 2008 Republican National Convention.
This was starting to get very creepy. Just in my own reporting, law enforcement—both local and federal—seemed to be highly invested in invasive political surveillance, investigating people not for crimes they had committed, but for things they believed. They were targeting people for being different.
I never wanted to be the paranoia freak who starts seeing a conspiracy in every cobweb, but the evidence was stacking up that we are living in something uncomfortably close to a surveillance state.
Fourth: I started seeing similar stories in other papers, which was a relief (because I was starting to think I was going crazy) but added to the worry that we're moving in a very un-American direction—one that doesn't protect liberty and dissent ("land of the free" and all that), but targets it for intimidation and punishment.
There was the Washington Post series on "Top-Secret America" and the collusion between private contractors, law enforcement, and lobbyists; the Guardian stories about undercover agents trying to incite terrorism instead of find credible threats in the UK; the stories about Brandon Darby and efforts by the FBI to rile up protesters and turn them into "domestic terrorists"; Will Potter's book Green Is the New Red, about the extensive targeting of non-violent environmental activists; the New Yorker story about the unhealthy relationship between the FBI and its less trustworthy informants; the documentary If a Tree Falls, which is a slightly different case since it covers the FBI's hunt for some ELF members who actually did burn things down, but is also at pains to demonstrate how acts of financial sabotage are wrongfully being equated with terrorist acts like flying planes into buildings and killing thousands of people.
Yesterday, Mother Jones dropped an impressive constellation of stories about the FBI's recent tactics pursuing both domestic political activists and perceived terrorist threats in the Muslim community. The stories indicate that the bureau isn't so much investigating crimes or following potential dangers as it is trying to justify its own counter-terrorism resources, even if that involves entrapment and ginning relatively benign situations into dangerous ones. (Which also sounds like the direction the drug war has taken in the past several years.)
Some sample subheads and quotes:
The FBI has built a massive network of spies to prevent another domestic attack. But are they busting terrorist plots—or leading them?
To many on the left, Brandon Darby was a hero. To federal agents consumed with busting anarchist terror cells, he was the perfect snitch.
In November 2003, FBI informant Shahed Hussain met with Mohammed Hossain, a pizzeria owner in Albany, New York. Hussain bragged about supplying weapons to his "mujahid brothers" and showed off a Stinger missile. In January 2004, Hussain gave Hossain $5,000. Yassin Aref, a local imam, was brought into oversee the transaction. Both men are now serving 15 years for money laundering and providing material support to terrorists.
Hussain recorded his conversations with Hossain and Aref in two undercover surveillance videos. In the first, he shows Hossain the missile launcher. "Do you know what this is?" he asks in Urdu. "This is for destroying airplanes." (Read the full transcript of the video here.) In the second video, Hussein gives Hossain $5,000, which the pizzeria owner seems to think is a loan. Aref counts the cash. "Okay, let's do some business, okay?" Hussein tells them. "Let's make some money, okay?" (Read the full transcript of the video here.)
So. What to make of all this? Why is law-enforcement acting this way? Have we cart-and-horsed our system so law enforcement drives policy instead of the other way around? Or is it pressure from the top, since 9/11, to make "terrorism" busts and Al Qaeda's hard to find, so this is the best way to please the higher-ups?
And why do any of the people involved on the government side think that the best way to protect American values and citizens is by quashing differences of political opinion and, in some cases, the press? Who among our public servants thinks that's a good idea?
And why do I feel like these stories—that I've worked on, that others have worked on—are earning journalists new pals that they haven't met yet in the FBI?