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Secret FBI Unit Detained War Protesters in 2002

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Recently unearthed police logs reveal a secret FBI intelligence unit helped detain a group of war protesters in a downtown Washington parking garage in April 2002 and interrogated some of them on videotape about their political and religious beliefs. The protesters were targeted largely because they were wearing the color black and perceived by police to be anarchists. We speak with one of the protesters and an attorney filing suit against the FBI and D.C. police. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: New revelations have linked the FBI to the interrogation and detention of antiwar protesters in Washington, D.C. According to unearthed police records, a secret FBI intelligence unit helped detain and question a group of protesters in a downtown parking garage in April 2002. Some of the protesters were interrogated on videotape about their political and religious beliefs.

According to the police records, the protesters were largely targeted because they were wearing the color black and perceived by police to be anarchists. In one section of the police log, an officer reports, “There are reportedly 15 anarchists at 13th and K being interviewed. The subjects reportedly had a passkey to a building, but it’s unknown how they came to be in possession of it.”

After the protesters were detained, FBI agents dressed in street clothes separated members to question them one by one about protests they had attended, whom they had spent time with recently, what political views they espoused, and the significance of their tattoos and slogans.

AMY GOODMAN: For years, law enforcement authorities suggested the incident never took place. According to The Washington Post, the revelations provide the first public evidence that Washington, D.C.-based FBI personnel used their intelligence-gathering powers in the district to collect purely political information. The police records came to light out of a lawsuit filed on behalf of the protesters by the Partnership for Civil Justice.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard is an attorney and co-founder of the Partnership. She joins us from Washington, D.C. And with us here in our firehouse studio is Nat Meysenburg. He is one of the students, at that time, who were arrested and questioned at the protest. He’s a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Nat, let’s begin with you. Describe what happened on this day. It was the major antiwar protest, April 20, 2002?

NAT MEYSENBURG: Yes, we were — the protest was winding down, and a few of us had linked up with my brother and his friends, who are from Baltimore. And they had driven up from Baltimore and parked in a building on K Street, where his friend worked at the time. And so, they had brought some food with them, and we were all hungry after a day of being outside. So we left the protest, and we walked into the garage. And within a few minutes, the street outside the garage was blocked off, and the police were around.

We had sent a friend up to defuse the situation, let the police know that we weren’t trying to cause any trouble and that we would leave, and we began to pack up the food and leave before I had even finished eating a whole meal’s worth. And the next thing we know, he didn’t come back, and the gate was opening, and people were charging into the garage. We exited through the lobby of the building, where, once on the street, we were stopped by the police and lined up along the building, had our bags searched. And we were taken off — several of us were taken off, one by one, to be interviewed on videotape by the FBI.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, these were uniformed police, or did the police have identification? And how many FBI were there that you could make out?

NAT MEYSENBURG: We were originally stopped by a uniformed police officer with the Metropolitan Police Department, and we were — there was a number of plainclothes Metropolitan Police officers. We could tell that they worked for the police department, because they had badges around their neck. There were only — that we could tell — the two intelligence-gathering FBI agents, and we assumed that they were FBI because they didn’t have any kind of badge or marking that would associate them with the police department.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And they were the ones that interviewed you, the two that had no identification?

NAT MEYSENBURG: The two that had no identifications were the ones who took us off and away from the rest of the group and interviewed us on video camera.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you ask them who they were?

NAT MEYSENBURG: I don’t recall, honestly, whether or not I asked them who they were or whether or not they identified themselves to me.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what did they ask you?

NAT MEYSENBURG: They asked me why I had come into town that day, how I had gotten into town that day, where I was staying, who I was staying with, if I was involved in any political organizations, if I had any piercings other than the one visible on my lip, if I had any tattoos that they couldn’t see, and if I did could I show it to them. And —

AMY GOODMAN: What did you answer to all these questions?

NAT MEYSENBURG: To the questions of how I had gotten into the city and who I was staying with, I was vague and completely nonspecific. You know, how did I get into the city? Well, I took the metro. And I didn’t answer with any political affiliations or anything like that. I tried to sidestep all of their questions and be as noncooperative as I could.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, what happened afterwards? Did they deny this took place?

NAT MEYSENBURG: Yes, for years in our civil lawsuit against the city of D.C., the police department has denied that the FBI was ever on the scene. They at first even denied that they were doing their own intelligence gathering. But that came to light, but they have — since, and they have maintained that the FBI has never been on the scene.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, was anyone actually arrested and charged as a result of this roundup of theirs?

NAT MEYSENBURG: We were all actually arrested. Despite being told the whole time we were being detained and would soon be released, we were taken and held for approximately six to eight hours. And we were charged with trespassing. Those charges were dropped. We were not told of our charges, though. First I learned of my charges was when I was released from jail and I looked at the paperwork.

AMY GOODMAN: And what were you charged with?

NAT MEYSENBURG: Trespassing.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney and co-founder of Partnership for Civil Justice. Mara, talk about the significance of this, of the years of denial that the FBI were involved.

MARA VERHEYDEN-HILLIARD: Well, as Nat said, the FBI and the Metropolitan Police Department have steadfastly held that it didn’t happen. We believe our clients. We know that this happens. We have evidence in other cases of FBI involvement in intelligence gathering on political protesters. And in discovery request after discovery request, in sworn responses in hearings before the court, over and over again, the FBI, the MPD have done everything they can to suggest that this is somehow complete fabrication.

And we have sought for years, as well, to get a particular document, the document that now places the FBI squarely at the scene of the arrests and doing intelligence gathering. And that’s the running resume. It’s a document that indicates, line by line, what the MPD and federal police and other law enforcement agencies are doing during protests. We’ve been able to obtain them in virtually every protest case we’re litigating in D.C. And in this case, they actually told us it didn’t exist, and they swore it didn’t exist. And now we know why. This document says very clearly FBI intelligence is on the scene and the protesters are being questioned. And the only way this finally came up is they gave it to us the one business day before a deposition we were taking of one of the MPD members who’s responsible for developing this document.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what has been the response of the law enforcement officials who kept saying that they didn’t have any records of this?

MARA VERHEYDEN-HILLIARD: Well, we want a response. We have filed a motion for sanctions with the court. As well, the FBI has filed a motion to dismiss themselves from the case. We don’t see that there can be any basis for their dismissal. And this situation is really important, because we think it’s sort of the tip of the iceberg. We think it’s one tentacle coming up that’s quite visible of a larger operation. The questions that they were asking protesters, the questions about who were you with, what are your political beliefs, where are you staying — associational, political questions — that’s programmatic questioning. It’s not random questioning. It’s the kind of information you collect when you’re building a database, an associational database and a network database of information. And it’s all purely political. It’s all First Amendment-protected political activity, political association.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, are there any local laws in the District of Columbia similar to those in — well, in New York, there are the Handschu guidelines that limit this kind of political surveillance. But what limitations are there either on the FBI or Metropolitan Police on this kind of surveillance?

MARA VERHEYDEN-HILLIARD: Well, there’s limitations in two sort of particular ways. I mean, you have straightforward First Amendment limitations. Law enforcement can’t be in the business of collecting purely political information without any allegation of criminal activity and without any criminal basis. But that’s exactly what’s happening here and exactly what we think is happening around the country.

In the District of Columbia, the Partnership for Civil Justice uncovered an illegal ongoing domestic spying operation about three years ago, where the Metropolitan Police Department was sending officers on undercover long-term assignments, posing as protesters, infiltrating protest groups, going to people’s meetings and offices and homes, and claiming to be protesters, and then collecting that kind of intelligence operation.

After that, the council here in the District of Columbia enacted a law that had some limitations on domestic spying by the police, but it’s clear from what we’re seeing with this and from the ongoing depositions we’ve taken, including of the chief of the intelligence division in D.C., and by their representations and denials of this incident and these documents, that they’re clearly working with the FBI. They’re working in a way where the FBI can come in, can do its intelligence gathering. The MPD is trying to create some level of distance, so they don’t have to have accountability for what they’re doing, they can’t be held responsible for what they’re doing. And that’s what we’re aiming to stop at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: Nat, what effect did this arrest have on you, and the questioning?

NAT MEYSENBURG: Well, first of all, I don’t think I’ve been to a protest in D.C. since. Secondly, I have become vastly more distrustful of police orders. I cooperated with police requests and acted in good faith, that I would be let go if I merely cooperated with them. And throughout, they violated my rights, from my very right to show up and speak out against the war to my rights to be free from incarceration and harassment. And so, in that way, I have become more distrustful of police, particularly in protest situations. But also, more generally it’s galvanized me in a way to speak out about what happened to me and the type of illegal tactics used by police departments all over the country to silence dissenting voices and protesters.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your reaction to the fact that officials have repeatedly misrepresented or lied about the actual activity they were involved in?

NAT MEYSENBURG: I don’t necessarily think it’s that surprising of an action that they took, almost typical, but I’m still outraged. These people are supposed to be there to defend the laws and defend my rights, and instead we find them covering things up in federal court for year after year.

AMY GOODMAN: Nat Meysenburg and Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Nat was a student at the New School at the time, arrested on April 20, 2002, at the antiwar protest. Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a co-founder of Partnership for Civil Justice in Washington, D.C.

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