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2006-05-05

FBI Counterterrorism Unit Spies on Peace Group School of the Americas Watch

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The ACLU released evidence Thursday showing that the FBI has been monitoring the peace group, School of Americas Watch. The group conducts research on the U.S Army School of the Americas, now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. SOA Watch is the latest organization that has been found to have been subject to U.S government surveillance in the name of counterterrorism efforts. [includes rush transcript]

The ACLU released evidence Thursday showing that the FBI has been monitoring the peace group, School of Americas Watch. SOA Watch was founded by Father Roy Bourgeois in 1990. The group conducts research on the U.S Army School of the Americas, now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The School, which is located at Fort Benning, Georgia, trains hundreds of soldiers from Latin America each year and is funded entirely by the U.S government. SOA Watch holds an annual vigil calling for the closure of the facility. Last year the vigil drew 19,000 people.

SOA Watch is the latest organization that the ACLU has found to have been subject to U.S government surveillance in the name of counterterrorism efforts. In December, NBC News revealed the existence of a secret Pentagon database to track intelligence gathered inside the United States including information on anti-war protests and rallies. The database included information on counter-military recruiting meetings held at a Quaker Meeting House in Lake Forth, Florida and anti-nuclear protests staged in Nebraska on the 50th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

And in March the ACLU uncovered files showing that the FBI had been monitoring and possibly infiltrating the Thomas Merton Center which is a Pittsburgh-based peace center, actively opposed to the war in Iraq.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined in our Firehouse studio now by Ann Beeson, associate legal director of the ACLU, and we’re joined by Dave Lippman. He’s a freelance journalist who’s suing the F.B.I. for spying on him during the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Miami in 2003. In Washington, we’re joined by the coordinator for SOA Watch. Ann Beeson, what have you learned?

ANN BEESON: Well, we have had our fears confirmed that in this environment after 9/11, we’ve seen both a steady erosion of the, I think, quintessential American right to protest government policies and an expansion of monitoring by agencies from the F.B.I. to the Pentagon to the National Security Agency. Unfortunately these documents about the massive surveillance of School of the Americas Watch are just some documents of a wide campaign that we’ve been involved in around the country on behalf of about 150 different peaceful protest groups that protest a whole range of issues, not just the war in Iraq and not just the School of the Americas Watch, but also environmental activists and animal rights activists, all now being targeted by our government’s counterterrorism units.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Ann, this seems almost a complete replay in the 1970s, when the government was involved in massive spying on all kinds of legitimate groups of dissent. And, obviously, there were congressional hearings at the time and new legislation passed. But how has the Bush administration been able to get away with just completely renewing this all over again?

ANN BEESON: Well, that’s exactly right, and I’m glad you raise that, because one of the things that’s remarkable when you look at what’s happening today is the utter lack of imagination of the F.B.I. In fact, you see precisely the same groups being targeted now as terrorist sympathizers that used to be targeted as communist sympathizers during the Cold War. And that includes the American Friends Service Committee and other Quaker groups. It includes groups like the National Lawyers Guild. A whole range of groups that were spied on then are now being spied on again today.

And, in fact, as you say, there were protections, we had thought, put in place during that era when Americans cried out and said this is not the American way. We can’t have the F.B.I. routinely spying on protesters. And right after 9/11 then-Attorney General John Ashcroft basically overturned many of the guidelines that in the last several decades had limited this kind of spying on protest groups.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk to two entities that have been spied on. We’ll go to Washington for School of the Americas Watch, and then in our studio, well, Dave Lippman, an entity in himself, suing the F.B.I. for spying on him, freelance journalist.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Ann Beeson, associate legal director of the ACLU; Eric LeCompte in Washington, D.C., coordinator of SOA Watch; and Dave Lippman, a freelance journalist suing the F.B.I. for spying on him. Eric LeCompte, let’s go to you. What do you understand about what the F.B.I. is doing in your case?

ERIC LeCOMPTE: Well, with the ACLU, what we have learned is that since at least 2001, the F.B.I. has been spying on us and on our gatherings that take place at the gates of Fort Benning every year. Every year at Fort Benning, we gather there to call for a closure of the School of the Americas, a school that has graduated over 60,000 Latin American soldiers. These soldiers from Bolivia, Colombia, El Salvador have returned to their home countries and committed the worst human rights abuses in Latin American history, and what we’ve found is that, as we’ve gathered there, the F.B.I. has been monitoring us, has been spying on us, and has been recording what we’re doing.

Now, I think one of the things that’s very crucial to understand about these first 50-odd pages that the F.B.I. was forced to release by the ACLU, is in these pages, it says consistently in their surveillance over us over these last five years, that we are a nonviolent group, that we are a peaceful group. They note, in fact, in their October of 2003 memos how specifically our leadership of this movement maintains a spirit of nonviolence at the gatherings, and still, with this kind of information shared throughout the entire memos, they’re still spying on us.

And I think, just so that all the listeners can really understand what this means, I think it is important for me just to take a moment to describe who are the people who are being spied on. Who are we as a movement trying to end torture? You know, when we gather every year at the gates of Fort Benning, calling for an end to civilian targeted warfare in Latin America, calling for an end to torture, it’s a pretty diverse group that gathers. Those who gather include Catholic bishops and Catholic nuns, the ministers of the Presbyterian Church and Methodist Church, as a matter of fact, ministers from just about every mainline religion, national veterans organizations. Labor unions come in force, like the United Auto Workers and the Steelworkers of America. We have with us the presidents of universities and the principals of high schools, Buddhist monks.

These are some of those who gather, and these are the kinds of people that are being spied on, and I think what this illustrates right now in this national security state that is coming into being is that none of us are safe. Our movement comes right from middle America, and with this kind of surveillance, F.B.I. surveillance, Homeland Security surveillance taking place on our movement, it illustrates, I believe, that none of us are safe.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Eric, was there anything that was discovered in those memos, F.B.I. memos that were released to you that would in any way remotely raise suspicion or a basis for counterterrorism being invoked as a reason for spying on you?

ERIC LECOMPTE: Not even one single iota. There is not anything within the documents. Granted, there is quite a bit that they have blacked out in the documents that we received, but there was nothing that would describe us as violent or as a threat. Again, it’s just the opposite. They hammer home the point that we’re a peaceful organization, and I think even to illustrate this even further, you know, we have 130 members of Congress who are active supporters of our movement. As a matter of fact, in the next week, as early as a week from now, we’re expecting a vote to close the School of the Americas in Congress.

Now with that kind of high political profile that our movement has and that we’ve had over the years and, again, our spirit of nonviolence, to note that at least since 2001 we’ve been under active surveillance, that we’ve been being spied on by the F.B.I., I have to say it really angers me, because our government should be investigating the torture and the assassinations committed by the graduates of this school, and instead they’re using our tax dollars, our precious resources, to spy on peaceful Catholic bishops and Presbyterian ministers, instead of using our resources to close this school and investigate the atrocities that these graduates have committed. It’s shameful, and what it does illustrate is that we are being monitored for our political views, views which are probably different than this current administration, that we believe torture should end and that there should not be civilian-targeted warfare in Latin America funded by our tax dollars.

AMY GOODMAN: The founder of SOA Watch is Father Roy Bourgeois who was a Maryknoll priest who worked throughout Latin America, now lives outside the — well, what used to be known as the School of the Americas, in a little office, and that is the heart of this movement, every year massive protests there. At our web site, democracynow.org, you can see the images of protest. Among those who has come to the School of the Americas Watch protest is Martin Sheen, the actor, Dan Berrigan, who is celebrating his eighty-fifth birthday, Father Dan Berrigan. Martin Sheen, who when he crosses the line in his protests, whether at Los Alamos or at the School of the Americas, has said — you know, he’s the President on West Wing, which is ending now, the President of the United States — he says, "I work for General Electric," which owns NBC, which has West Wing. "I work for General Electric for a living, and I do this," as he crosses the line, "to stay alive."

I wanted to ask Dave Lippman in our studio, you were working for Free Speech Radio News, which provides news for community radio stations in Pacifica around the country, covering the FTAA protest in November of 2003. What happened?

DAVE LIPPMAN: I had just parked my car in a municipal garage, and it was about two hours later I happened to be standing on a corner when I saw my truck go by behind a tow truck, and then I realized that the street that I had seen that was blocked off was blocked off because they were examining my truck and breaking the windows in it. It took me two days to get it back, and I found padlocks on the back broken and everything quite disordered, so the ACLU came into the case, the ACLU of Florida, and eventually they discovered documents indicating that several different law enforcement agencies have been involved, in not entirely clear ways, including the Miami police the Broward County Sheriffs, the neighboring county and the F.B.I. It’s not clear what the exact motive was of taking that vehicle. It was not the only vehicle taken or damaged, but it does say in the documents that the vehicle was followed from North Carolina, where I live, to Miami, because I’m a protester with a known history.

AMY GOODMAN: A protester with a history?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Right, and the incident report actually does admit that the Broward County Sheriffs, F.B.I. and Miami Dade were involved in the damage, right? But it doesn’t give a reason?

DAVE LIPPMAN: Only the reason that I’m a protester with a known history.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s that history?

DAVE LIPPMAN: Well, I have spent a lot of time as a performing artist, but doing political material. I do music and comedy around the country, but I was involved in North Carolina in local antiwar activities, local organizations, campus, community organizations, starting around 2001, and so I had been doing that for the last two years.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what kind of comedy do you do?

DAVE LIPPMAN: I play a singing C.I.A. agent, which is a little ironic, I guess, in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: Ann Beeson, what does an individual do in this case?

ANN BEESON: Well, anyone, of course, that is an active member of any organization or is an active protester can try to get a copy of their F.B.I. file through the Freedom of Information Act. That is, in fact, the tool that we’ve used to expose all of these examples of spying so far. So you can fight back by exposing these records, and we are pressuring Congress to restore the guidelines that limit domestic spying. And there is some movement as a result of this national project for members of Congress to support that kind of restoration of our rights to protest.

AMY GOODMAN: Vermont Senator Leahy has been playing a key role, also demanding to know about what’s happening to peace activists in Vermont, since information came out in the database, I think Pentagon or F.B.I. database, that they are being targeted, groups like AFSC.

ANN BEESON: That’s right. Another important thing to note is that part of this is a result of government funding of supposed counterterrorism efforts, again something you saw back in the sixties and seventies. All of these dollars are flowing to the Miami Police Department, etc, and these departments around the country, and they’re being told, "Oh, you’ve got to find a terrorist somewhere." Well what are they doing? They’re wasting these resources on investigation of peaceful protesters.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And for citizens who want to be able to get a hold of their F.B.I. files, has it become more difficult in recent years? Have they become more stringent in terms of giving people access to these records?

ANN BEESON: They have cracked down a bit, and so we’ve actually been a bit surprised at the amount of information that we have. It make us wonder what they’re not giving us, because as you heard, with regard to the School of the Americas Watch, many of the documents we’re receiving on these groups are heavily redacted. Now, we’re going to continue to litigate to try to get access to some of the redacted versions of those files but, you know, I suppose we could say at least there’s little hope that they’re giving us some of these records and we’re able to expose it.

AMY GOODMAN: Is Dave Lippman still being monitored?

ANN BEESON: I don’t think we know. Do you know, Dave? Have you heard anything through your case?

DAVE LIPPMAN: I have no clue. We did do a Freedom of Information Act to the F.B.I. regarding this case before filing the lawsuit, which came up with nothing.

ANN BEESON: Yes, so see, not everyone is as fortunate as we’ve been, with regard to School of the Americas Watch and the Merton Center and the American Friends Service Committee, in getting these files, which again makes you wonder what else they’re hiding.

AMY GOODMAN: Can Congress just say, "Stop it"?

ANN BEESON: Absolutely, they could, and they should, and we should all encourage them to stop this.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why haven’t they?

ANN BEESON: Well, that’s a very good question, and that’s why we all need to keep speaking out, exposing these ridiculous examples and getting more people to join us in calling for really a restoration of the American right to protest.

AMY GOODMAN: If I remember correctly, with the F.T.A.A. protest, the Free Trade Area of the Americas protest in Miami, the Miami Police Department was given something like $8 million to deal with this peaceful protest. So now we know where some of the money went.

ANN BEESON: Absolutely. You know, and even people who don’t necessarily support the views of many of the groups that we’re representing around the country have to say, you know, "What are they doing with our tax dollars? Couldn’t they be spending it on something that would actually make us a little secure even if you’re concerned about security?"

JUAN GONZALEZ: Back in the 1970s with COINTELPRO, the F.B.I. not only conducted surveillance, but conducted active attempts to create divisions and to lure people into criminal activities. Do you find some of that happening, as well, or not?

ANN BEESON: We know as a result of this same project that the F.B.I. has sent confidential informants into mainstream groups like Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. We don’t know exactly what those confidential informants are doing, because those are the details that are redacted, but we know that they’re there, and we absolutely are concerned that the same kind of, you know, provocation is happening as a result of these confidential informants inside these groups.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll certainly continue to follow the story. I want to thank you, Ann Beeson, for being with us, associate legal director of the ACLU, Eric LeCompte, who is with us in Washington, of SOA Watch, and Dave Lippman of — well, at the time was working for Free Speech Radio and continues to work around the country, both as an entertainer and as a reporter.

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