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The Return of COINTELPRO: FBI Launches Nationwide Surveillance Of Activists Ahead of GOP Convention

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The FBI has begun interrogating activists in Colorado, Kansas and other states about their plans to protest at the convention. Meanwhile the NYPD has put 56 activists around the country under 24 hours surveillance. Reports indicate the NYPD has assigned one supervisor and six police officers to track each of the 56 activists. [includes rush transcript]

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has visited political activists in at least six states to question them about their involvement in protests at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.

FBI officials describe the questioning as part of a larger effort to track any planned disruptions related to the conventions, the presidential debates or the November election.

An FBI spokesman told The New York Times this week that the individuals visited in recent weeks are “people that we identified that could reasonably be expected to have knowledge of such plans and plots if they existed.”

But civil rights groups say the 40 to 50 documented cases of FBI questioning amount to harassment and result in the chilling of free speech.

Now, ABC is reporting that the NYPD has identified 56 so-called “primary anarchists” who will be followed 24 hours a day. One supervisor and six cops will be assigned to each person.

Several Democratic legislators this week issued a letter to the Justice Department’s Inspector General calling for an investigation into the FBI questioning calling it” “systematic political harassment and intimidation of legitimate antiwar protesters.”

Today, we hear several stories today from individuals who have faced intimidation and interrogation from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

  • Sarah Bardwell, activist and intern with the American Friends Service Committee Denver chapter, questioned by FBI and Denver Police at her home.
  • Mark Silverstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado.
  • Esther Sassaman, Palestinian Rights Activist in Cleveland who was told she was on a terrorist watch list and intimidated at her job
  • Eric Laursen, a member of the A31 Coalition which has called for direct action protests on Aug. 31 during the Republican National Convention.

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re joined first by Sarah Bardwell, an activist and intern with the American Friends Service Committee, Denver chapter, questioned by the F.B.I. And Denver police at her home. She joins us by phone from Denver. Welcome to Democracy Now!


JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Sarah, could you tell us a little bit about your experience with the F.B.I.?

SARAH BARDWELL: It was Thursday on July 22nd, there were four F.B.I. Agents and two Denver police officers who came to our house in the afternoon, and told us that — came into our house and we asked them to stay on the front porch, and they told us that they were doing preemptive investigations into suspected terrorists about actions planned at the R.N.C. and the D.N.C. Then they proceeded to ask us if we were planning any criminal activity or if we knew anybody who was planning any criminal activity for the convention.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what did you tell them?

SARAH BARDWELL: Myself and several of my roommates told them that they were choosing not to answer those questions.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Did they — did they persist or did they tell you had to answer any questions?

SARAH BARDWELL: At the time they didn’t persist about the questions. They spent a lot of time sort of looking into our house, taking notes on the things that were on the walls in the living room, asking us about what our house was, and who we all were, and they asked us what our names were, which we also told them that they wouldn’t give. Finally, though, they did say that since we weren’t giving them the information that they wanted, they were taking that as non-cooperation and they were going to have to therefore take more intrusive effort in the future to find out what they needed to know, but they wouldn’t specify what they needed to know specifically or what those more intrusive efforts were.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we’re joined on the phone also by Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado. Your reaction to these visits and any others in the Denver area?

MARK SILVERSTEIN: There have been a number of other such visits or similar visits in Colorado that we’re aware of, and of course, there’s always the possibility that there have been additional ones that we’re not aware of. I’m very, very skeptical that these visits are what the F.B.I. Claims them to be. They don’t sound like a good faith investigation of reasonably suspected criminal activity. They sound much more like visits designed to intimidate these young people from engaging in protest activity or from associating with people who are engaging in such activities. The questions the F.B.I. asked are not the kind of questions that would be asked if they were really trying to investigate suspected criminal activity.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In the reports that you have gotten of other people in the Denver area, what have been the actions or the statements of the F.B.I. agents?

MARK SILVERSTEIN: The questions are similar. In several of them the F.B.I. people have clipboards with papers that include pictures, photographs of the young people. And I think one of the things that communicates is we have files on you, and you’re in those files. The larger message that it communicates is that if you participate in actions critical of the government or government policies, you might wind up with an F.B.I. file. The danger, of course, is that these kinds of actions on the part of the F.B.I. Could deter people from joining a protest, from signing a petition, from writing a letter to the editor if they feel that that’s going to prompt F.B.I. scrutiny and maybe an F.B.I. file. It’s unwarranted for peaceful, non-violent activity that’s 100% protected by the first amendment. You shouldn’t risk having a government police file because you criticized the government.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we’re also joined on the telephone from Cleveland by Esther Sassaman, a Palestinian rights activist who was told she was on a terrorist watch list and intimidated at her job in that city. Welcome.

ESTHER SASSAMAN: Thank you for having me on.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Can you tell us about your experience with the F.B.I.?

ESTHER SASSAMAN: I actually didn’t have an experience with the F.B.I. I had a much more informal experience with the Department of Homeland Security. The first Wednesday in July, I was called on the carpet at work. My supervisor was there, and so was the head of security at my job. He said that he had gotten an informal notification from, quote, a buddy of his, that works at the Department of Homeland Security, and they said that they had been monitoring my internet activity, and that they thought that I was a terrorist. That was the first thing that happened. My boss told me to delete everything that from my computer at work before that to show them — representative examples of the communications I had made, and they said if they had gotten one more comment like this, then I would be losing my job. Since then, I have not gotten any kind of formal contact from the Department of Homeland Security. This was an entirely informal contact. I believe it was meant to intimidate me, and there has been no written record of it or physical show-up by these agents whatsoever.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Mark Silverstein of the ACLU in Colorado, this, even though it’s an informal contact sounds like it’s even more, an even bigger problem because it’s one thing to visit somebody at home, another to make contact with someone’s employer and to put their job in jeopardy.

MARK SILVERSTEIN: This is the first that I have heard of this, I don’t have the specifics, so I’m not going to be able to answer questions about that, that specific episode. I’m sorry.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Just in general of people being contacted, employers being contacted by federal agencies about suspicions or allegations about individual employees. You don’t feel that you can comment on that?

MARK SILVERSTEIN: Well, I’m sorry. I know about what’s going on here in Colorado.


ESTHER SASSAMAN: Maybe I can say something — after it happened, I did contact the local ACLU office, and the director of that office notified me that this is a common tactic, that they will use Department of Homeland Security or the F.B.I. Or whatever will make a cold call even to the head of security at a workplace where some kind of responsible official is, and just make these statements. I do know that the individual supposedly called the head of security up at my job about a week later to see if I was terminated. I was not. I think that they were just trying to cause a hard time for me. There’s just no paper trail of it, so you’re right it, is hard to keep track of these. I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there who are not even reporting that this is happening to them, and they’re just sort of sitting in fear.

MARK SILVERSTEIN: I guess one of the missing things, I think — I think one of the — I don’t know what the content of these internet communications were, but I mean, it sounds like you’re saying that these — I mean, depending on what the content of them were that could inform whether the F.B.I. action is wholly unjustified or whether there’s some basis for it. I’m assuming that these were just commentaries that are just criticisms about particular issues.

ESTHER SASSAMAN: Yeah. A lot of them weren’t even that. What happened was I went to Palestine for two weeks in September of 2003, and I came back, and I had made lots of contacts with people there, especially young people, students. A lot of folks have internet communication there, and you can chat with them in real-time or send emails back and forth. Basically, I was just, you know, sending emails back and forth during my lunch hour. Most of them weren’t even political in nature. They were about personal matters like people’s studies at school and so on. I think that they just don’t like you to reach out and talk to Palestinians. I think that that itself might be part of the problem that they had.

MARK SILVERSTEIN: And how did the F.B.I. Find out what — that you were engaged in these communications?

ESTHER SASSAMAN: I have no way of knowing that. I can only conjecture that it was through the internet monitoring systems that we all know and love so well like Echelon and Carnivore. You know.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we’re also joined here in the studio by Eric Laursen, a member of the 831 coalition which has called for direct action protests on August 31 during the Republican National Convention. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Eric.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you tell us, what’s been the impact of these kinds of visits by Homeland Security or F.B.I. agents to people on their jobs and in their homes and what’s been the impact on your organizing efforts?

ERIC LAURSEN: Well, to begin with, there’s a sort of a chilling effect that happens, especially for people out of town who are planning to come here for the protest. There’s going to be maybe hundreds of thousands of people coming to New York and mobilizing in New York to protest the convention and the republicans. This sort of activity really sends a message that if you have a certain political point of view, that you could be subject to harassment, and when I say chilling effect, that means maybe people will decide not to come here. Maybe people will decide to leave town. Maybe people will decide to stay in rather than coming out into the streets and protest. That’s very disturbing. We have not seen a lot of the effect on our organizing because we’re really looking for people to come out and do direct action civil disobedience. It’s hard to intimidate people who are willing to do something like that to begin with. That’s the fortunate part. The less fortunate part is that people who might want to take to the streets and exercise their rights in a more direct way for the first time will be thinking twice about it. That’s — that bothers us.

JUAN GONZALEZ: There’s also a report here from WABC News here in New York that New York police are now shadowing 56 protesters believed to be the most dangerous that are coming to the protests at the Republican National Convention. I’d like to ask Mark Silverstein again from the ACLU in Colorado — this whole question, obviously the government is saying we’re in a different time now. We’re in a time of high terrorist alerts, especially with the Republican National Convention, but where do you — where does the government properly draw the line between being able to secure the safety of citizens while at the same time protecting the rights of those who dissent to be able to protest?

MARK SILVERSTEIN: Well, I can tell you that one place a line was drawn here in Denver was in the resolution of our class action lawsuit challenging what became known as the Denver police department spy files. We challenged a program of the Denver police department’s intelligence unit that’s probably similar to the things that other law enforcement agencies have been doing around the country where they monitored people’s exercise of first amendment rights. They built files, and then in some cases, they had defamatory and erroneous labels for certain political groups such as, quote, criminal extremists, unquote. The line that was drawn in the resolution of that controversy here in Denver is that the police are forbidden to monitor or keep files or collect information about how people exercise their first amendment rights. Unless there are two conditions met. First, the first amendment activity such as, you know, people’s viewpoints or what groups they belong to or what demonstrations they have gone to police cannot collect that information or store it in criminal intelligence files unless that information about people’s views is directly relevant to criminal activity, and second, there has to be reasonable suspicion that those particular individuals are directly involved in that criminal activity. And a further line drawn here in Denver is that even though peaceful non-violent civil obedience, even though there’s a venerable tradition of using that as a tactic to express viewpoints or to oppose government policies, it’s illegal. It’s a crime. That’s why people get arrested, or they even cooperate in their arrests often when they participate in that civil disobedience, but in Denver, we drew another line. That is that even though such peaceful civil disobedience is a crime and even though people’s participation might be directly relevant to their participation in that crime, the Denver police department’s intelligence unit is not going to build files based on that activity. Based on any criminal activity that amounts at most to a misdemeanor.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Here in New York City, the police department is not only building files, they have announced according to the WABC report that the department will be — especially concerned about anarchist groups who disrupted the W.T.O. conference in Seattle and threatened to do the same thing here. The NYPD says they have identified 56 members of anarchist groups who said they have already assigned teams of police that are flying out to Boston, Washington, North Carolina and California to begin 24-hour surveillance of the 56 people, each one of the 56 has been assigned six policemen and one supervisor. That’s multiply that the number of New York city cops that will be leaving this weekend to surveil 24 hours a day, 56 members who they consider members of anarchist groups coming to New York. That gives you an indication of the scope the surveillance operations going on — scope of the surveillance operations going on to head off the disruptions of the Republican National Convention. That does it for this segment. I want to thank our guest, Eric Laurson, who has joined us, and as well from the A31 coalition, as well as the other guests who have joined us, Mark Silverstein of the ACLU in Colorado, Sarah Bardwell, an activist and intern with the American Friends Service Committee, and Esther Sassaman, from Cleveland.

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