The US Is Crawling With Informers and Agents Provocateurs

Todd Gitlin and Tom Engelhardt

by Tom Engelhardt: Nuclear
Terror in the Middle East

in the early 1970s, I worked for Pacific News Service (PNS), a small
antiwar media outfit that operated out of the Bay Area Institute
(BAI), a progressive think tank in San Francisco. The first
story I ever wrote for PNS came about because an upset U.S. Air
Force medic wanted someone to know about the American war wounded
then pouring in from the invasion of Laos. So he snuck me
onto Travis Air Force Base in northern California and into a military
hospital to interview wigged-out guys with stumps for limbs who
thought the war was a disaster. In some cases, they also thought
we should have bombed the Vietnamese “back to the stone age.”

I was a good
boy from the 1950s and sneaking onto that base made me nervous indeed.
It was also the most illegal act I encountered at either PNS or
the institute in those years. We did, of course, regularly
have active duty antiwar soldiers and members of Vietnam Veterans
Against the War pass through our office, and we had an antiwar GI
in Vietnam writing for us under a pseudonym. (At some point,
we found out that the Pentagon had actually tracked down and interviewed
every soldier in Vietnam with that pseudonymous name in its attempt
to uncover our journalist.)

In any case,
we doggedly researched, reported, wrote, and edited our stories
on U.S. war policy, which we syndicated, with modest success, to
mainstream newspapers as well as what, in those days, was romantically
called “the underground press.” The only hints of “violence”
you might have stumbled across in our office would have been discussions
of the violence of U.S. war policy.

So imagine
my surprise – okay, I shouldn’t have been, but I was
anyway – when years later one of my co-workers got his FBI
files thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, and it became
clear, on reading through those heavily redacted, semi-blacked-out
pages, that there had been an informer in our office, spying on
us and feeding information to the Bureau. If that was true
in a modest place like PNS/BAI, where wouldn’t there have
been such spies in the world of the antiwar movement? In fact,
U.S. government informers and sometimes agents provocateurs
were, it seems, a widespread phenomenon of those years. It’s
a story that has never fully been told, in part obviously because
the information to tell it just isn’t fully there. By
far the best account I’ve read on the subject, particularly when
it comes to agents provocateurs – government agents
sent in to provoke violence – was a section of Todd Gitlin’s
1980 book The
Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of
the New Left

Recently, as
Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency revelations about
the high-tech gathering of global (and domestic) communications
of every imaginable sort began
, Gitlin’s work came to mind again. I had certainly
been aware of how many post-9/11 “terror” cases against
American Muslims rested on the acts and testimony of government
informers, who sometimes even provided (fake) weaponry to hapless
plotters and the spark to begin plotting in the first place.
I began to wonder, however, what we didn’t know about the
low-tech side of America’s massive intelligence overreach.
So I picked up the phone and called Gitlin. The answer, as
his piece today indicates, is one hell of a horrifying lot.
Among the few outfits to pay significant attention to spies and
informers in the ranks of groups opposed to some aspect of Washington’s
policies, the ACLU stands out. In fact, in a map that organization
created, “Spying
on First Amendment Activity – State by State
,” you
can take a Mr. Toad’s wild ride through what’s known
of the universe of the twenty-first century American informer.
TomDispatch is pleased to follow up with a Mr. Todd’s wild
ride through the thickets of American intelligence clearly on the
march domestically. ~ Tom

Encounters of the Lower-Tech Kind

By Todd

Only Martians,
by now, are unaware of the phone and online data scooped
by the National Security Agency (though if it turns out that
they are aware, the NSA has surely picked up their signals
and crunched their metadata). American high-tech surveillance
is not, however, the only kind around. There’s also
the lower tech, up-close-and-personal kind that involves informers
and sometimes government-instigated violence.

Just how much
of this is going on and in how coordinated a way no one out here
in the spied-upon world knows. The lower-tech stuff gets reported,
if at all, only one singular, isolated event at a time – look
over here, look over there, now you see it, now you don’t.
What is known about such surveillance as well as the suborning of
illegal acts by government agencies, including the FBI, in the name
of counterterrorism has not been put together by major news organizations
in a way that would give us an overview of the phenomenon.
has done by far the best job of compiling reports on spying on Americans
of this sort.)

Some intriguing
bits about informers and agents provocateurs briefly made
it into the public spotlight when Occupy Wall Street was riding
high.  But as always, dots need connecting.  Here is a
preliminary attempt to sort out some patterns behind what could
be the next big story about government surveillance and provocation
in America.

Stories from Occupy Wall Street

The first is
about surveillance. The second is about provocation.

On September
17, 2011, Plan A for the New York activists who came to be known
as Occupy Wall Street was to march to the territory outside the
bank headquarters of JPMorgan Chase.  Once there, they discovered
that the block was entirely fenced in. Many activists came
to believe that the police had learned their initial destination
from e-mail circulating beforehand. Whereupon they headed
for nearby Zuccotti Park and a movement was born.

The evening
before May Day 2012, a
rump Occupy group
marched out of San Francisco’s Dolores
Park and into the Mission District, a neighborhood where not so
many 1-percenters live, work, or shop. There, they proceeded
to trash “mom and pop shops, local boutiques and businesses,
and cars,” according to Scott
, a medic and eyewitness, who summed his feelings up this
way afterward:  “We were hijacked.” The people
“leading the march tonight,” he added, were

cut, athletic, commanding, gravitas not borne of charisma but of
testosterone and intimidation. They were decked out in outfits typically
attributed to those in the ‘black bloc’ spectrum of
tactics, yet their clothes were too new, and something was just
off about them. They were very combative and nearly physically violent
with the livestreamers on site, and got ignorant with me, a medic,
when I intervened… I didn’t recognize any of these people.
Their eyes were too angry, their mouths were too severe. They felt
‘military’ if that makes sense. Something just wasn’t
right about them on too many levels.”

He was quick
to add, “I’m not one of those tin foil hat conspiracy
theorists. I don’t subscribe to those theories that
Queen Elizabeth’s Reptilian slave driver masters run the Fed.
I’ve read up on agents provocateurs and plants and that sort
of thing and I have to say that, without a doubt, I believe 100%
that the people that started tonight’s events in the Mission
were exactly that.”

Taken aback,
San Francisco
condemned the sideshow: “We consider these
acts of vandalism and violence a brutal assault on our community
and the 99%.”

Where does
such vandalism and violence come from? We don’t know.
There are actual activists who believe that they are doing good
this way; and there are government infiltrators; and then there
are double agents who don’t know who they work for,
ultimately, but like smashing things or blowing them up. By
definition, masked trashers of windows in Oakland or elsewhere are
anonymous. In anonymity, they – and the burners of flags
and setters of bombs – magnify their power. They hijack
the media spotlight. In this way, tiny groups –
incendiary, sincere, fraudulent, whoever they are – seize
that can move the entire world.

Sting of the Clueless Bee

Who casts the
first stone? Who smashes the first window? Who teaches
bombers to build and plant actual or spurious bombs? The history
of the secret police planting agents provocateurs in popular
movements goes back at least to nineteenth century France and twentieth
century Russia. In 1905, for example, the priest who led St.
Petersburg’s revolution was some sort of double
, as was the man who organized
the assassination of the Czar’s uncle, the Grand Duke.
As it happens, the United States has its own surprisingly full history
of such planted agents at work turning small groups or
movements in directions that, for better or far more often worse,
they weren’t planning on going. One well-documented
case is that of “Tommy
the Traveler
,” a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)
organizer who after years of trying to arouse violent action convinced
two 19-year-old students to firebomb an ROTC headquarters at Hobart
College in upstate New York. The writer John Schultz reported
likely provocateurs in Chicago during the Democratic National
Convention of 1968. How much of this sort of thing went on?
Who knows? Many relevant documents molder in unopened archives,
or have been heavily redacted or destroyed.

As the Boston
marathon bombing illustrates, there are homegrown terrorists capable
of producing the weapons they need and killing Americans without
the slightest help from the U.S. government.  But historically,
it’s surprising how relatively often the gendarme is also
a ringleader. Just how often is hard to know, since information
on the subject is fiendishly hard to pry loose from the secret world.

Through 2011,
508 defendants in the U.S. were prosecuted in what the Department
of Justice calls “terrorism-related cases.” According
to Mother
Trevor Aaronson
, the FBI ran sting operations
that “resulted in prosecutions against 158 defendants”
– about one-third of the total. “Of that total,
49 defendants participated in plots led by an agent provocateur
– an FBI operative instigating terrorist action. With
three exceptions, all of the high-profile domestic terror plots
of the last decade were actually FBI stings.”

In Cleveland,
on May Day of 2012, in the words of a Rolling
, the FBI “turned five stoner
misfits into the world’s most hapless terrorist cell.” To
do this, the FBI put a deeply indebted, convicted bank robber and
bad-check passer on their payroll, and hooked him up with an arms
dealer, also paid by the Bureau. The FBI undercover man then
hustled five wacked-out wannabe anarchists into procuring what they
thought was enough C4 plastic explosive to build bombs they thought
would blow up a bridge. The bombs were, of course, dummies.
The five were arrested and await trial.

What do such
cases mean? What is the FBI up to? Trevor Aaronson offers
this appraisal:

FBI’s goal is to create a hostile environment for terrorist recruiters
and operators – by raising the risk of even the smallest step
toward violent action. It’s a form of deterrence… Advocates
insist it has been effective, noting that there hasn’t been a successful
large-scale attack against the United States since 9/11. But what
can’t be answered – as many former and current FBI agents acknowledge
– is how many of the bureau’s targets would have taken the
step over the line at all, were it not for an informant.”

Perhaps Aaronson
is a bit too generous. The FBI may, at times, be
anything but thoughtful in its provocations. It may, in fact,
be flatly dopey. COINTELPRO records released since the 1960s
under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that it took FBI
Director J. Edgar Hoover until 1968 to discover that there was such
a thing as a New Left that might be of interest. Between 1960
and 1968, as the New Left was becoming a formidable force in its
own right, the Bureau’s top officials seem to have thought
that groups like Students for a Democratic Society were simply covers
for the Communist Party, which was like mistaking the fleas for
the dog. We have been assured that the FBI of today has learned
something since the days of J. Edgar Hoover. But of ignorance
and stupidity there is no end.

and Nontrivial Pursuits

and instigation to commit crimes are in themselves genuine dangers
to American liberties, even when the liberties are those of the
reckless and wild. But there is another danger to such pursuits:
the attention the authorities pay to nonexistent threats (or the
creation of such threats) is attention not paid to actual threats. 

Anyone concerned
about the security of Americans should cast a suspicious eye on
the allocation or simply squandering of resources on wild goose
chases. Consider some particulars which have recently come to light.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Partnership
for Civil Justice Fund
(PCJF) has unearthed documents showing
that, in 2011 and 2012, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
and other federal agencies were busy surveilling and worrying about
a good number of Occupy groups – during the very time that
they were missing actual warnings about actual terrorist actions.

From its beginnings,
the Occupy movement was of considerable interest to the DHS, the
FBI, and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies, while
true terrorists were slipping past the nets they cast in the wrong
places. In the fall of 2011, the DHS specifically asked
its regional affiliates to report on “Peaceful Activist Demonstrations,
in addition to reporting on domestic terrorist acts and ‘significant
criminal activity.’”

Aware that
Occupy was overwhelmingly peaceful, the federally funded Boston
Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), one of 77 coordination centers
known generically as “fusion centers,” was busy
Occupy Boston daily.  As the investigative journalist
Michael Isikoff recently
, they were not only tracking Occupy-related Facebook
pages and websites but “writing reports on the movement’s
potential impact on ‘commercial and financial sector assets.’”

It was in this
period that the FBI received the second of two Russian police warnings
about the extremist Islamist activities of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the
future Boston Marathon bomber. That city’s police commissioner
later testified that the federal authorities did not pass any information
at all about the Tsarnaev brothers on to him, though there’s
no point in letting the Boston police off the hook either.
The ACLU has uncovered documents showing that, during the same period,
they were paying
close attention
to the internal workings of…Code Pink
and Veterans for Peace.

Agencies and the “Private Sector” 

So we know
that Boston’s master coordinators – its Committee on
Public Safety, you might say – were worried about constitutionally
protected activity, including its consequences for “commercial
and financial sector assets.” Unsurprisingly, the feds
worked closely with Wall Street even before the settling of Zuccotti
Park. More surprisingly, in Alaska, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi,
Tennessee, and Wisconsin, intelligence was not only pooled among
public law enforcement agencies, but shared with private corporations
– and vice versa.

in 2011, the FBI and DHS were, in the words of Mara Verheyden-Hilliard,
executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, “treating
protests against the corporate and banking structure of America
as potential criminal and terrorist activity.”  Last
December using FOIA, PCJF
112 pages of documents (heavily redacted) revealing
a good deal of evidence for what might otherwise seem like an outlandish
charge: that federal authorities were, in Verheyden-Hilliard’s
words, “functioning as a de facto intelligence arm of Wall
Street and Corporate America.” Consider these examples
from PCJF’s summary of federal agencies working directly not
only with local authorities but on behalf of the private sector:

– “As
early as August 19, 2011, the FBI in New York was meeting with the
New York Stock Exchange to discuss the Occupy Wall Street protests
that wouldn’t start for another month. By September, prior
to the start of the OWS, the FBI was notifying businesses that they
might be the focus of an OWS protest.”

– “The
FBI in Albany and the Syracuse Joint Terrorism Task Force disseminated
information to… [22] campus police officials… A representative
of the State University of New York at Oswego contacted the FBI
for information on the OWS protests and reported to the FBI on the
SUNY-Oswego Occupy encampment made up of students and professors.”

– An entity
called the Domestic Security Alliance Council (DSAC), “a strategic
partnership between the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security,
and the private sector,” sent around information regarding
Occupy protests at West Coast ports [on Nov. 2, 2011] to “raise
awareness concerning this type of criminal activity.” The
DSAC report contained “a ‘handling notice’ that
the information is ‘meant for use primarily within the corporate
security community. Such messages shall not be released in either
written or oral form to the media, the general public or other personnel…’
Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS) reported to DSAC on
the relationship between OWS and organized labor.”

gave tips to its corporate clients on “civil unrest,”
which it defined as running the gamut from “small, organized
rallies to large-scale demonstrations and rioting.” It advised
corporate employees to dress conservatively, avoid political discussions
and “avoid all large gatherings related to civil issues. Even
seemingly peaceful rallies can spur violent activity or be met with
resistance by security forces.”

– The
FBI in Anchorage, Jacksonville, Tampa, Richmond, Memphis, Milwaukee,
and Birmingham also gathered information and briefed local officials
on wholly peaceful Occupy activities.

– In Jackson,
Mississippi, FBI agents “attended a meeting with the Bank
Security Group in Biloxi, MS with multiple private banks and the
Biloxi Police Department, in which they discussed an announced protest
for ‘National Bad Bank Sit-In-Day’ on December 7, 2011.”
Also in Jackson, “the Joint Terrorism Task Force issued a
‘Counterterrorism Preparedness’ alert” that, despite
heavy redactions, notes the need to ‘document…the Occupy
Wall Street Movement.’”

“intelligence” moves in the opposite direction –
from private corporations to public agencies.
 Among the collectors of such “intelligence”
are entities that, like the various intelligence and law enforcement
outfits, do not make distinctions between terrorists and nonviolent
protesters. Consider TransCanada,
the corporation that plans to build the 1,179 mile Keystone-XL
tar sands pipeline
across the U. S. and in the process realize
its “vision to become the leading energy infrastructure company
in North America.“ The anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska filed
a successful Freedom of Information Act request with the Nebraska
State Patrol and so was able to put TransCanada’s
briefing slideshow
up online.

So it can be
documented in living color that the company lectured federal agents
and local police to look into the use of “anti-terrorism statutes”
against peaceful anti-Keystone activists. TransCanada showed
slides that cited as sinister the “attendance” of Bold
Nebraska members at public events, noting “Suspicious Vehicles/Photography.”
TransCanada alerted the authorities that Nebraska protesters were
guilty of “aggressive/abusive behavior,” citing a local
anti-pipeline group that, they said, committed a “slap on
the shoulder” at the Merrick County Board Meeting (possessor
of said shoulder unspecified). They fingered nonviolent activists
by name and photo, paying them the tribute of calling them “’Professionals’
& Organized.” Native
News Network
pointed out that “although TransCanada’s
presentation to authorities contains information about property
destruction, sabotage, and booby traps, police in Texas and Oklahoma
have never alleged, accused, or charged Tar Sands Blockade activists
of any such behaviors.”

for Fusion, Diffusion, and Confusion

After September
11, 2001, government agencies at all levels, suddenly eager to break
down information barriers and connect the sort of dots that had
gone massively unconnected before the al-Qaida attacks, used Department
of Homeland Security funds to start “fusion centers.”
These are supposed to coordinate anti-terrorist intelligence gathering
and analysis. They are also supposed to “fuse”
intelligence reports from federal, state, and local authorities,
as well as private companies that conduct intelligence operations.
the ACLU, at least 77 fusion centers currently receive federal

Much is not
known about these centers, including just who runs them, by what
rules, and which public and private entities are among the fused.
There is nothing public about most of them. However, some
things are known about a few. Several fusion center
reports that have gone public illustrate a remarkably slapdash approach
to what constitutes “terrorist danger” and just what
kinds of data are considered relevant for law enforcement.
In 2010, the
American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee
learned, for instance,
that the Tennessee Fusion Center was “highlighting on its
website map of ‘Terrorism Events and Other Suspicious Activity’
a recent ACLU-TN letter to school superintendents. The letter
encourages schools to be supportive of all religious beliefs during
the holiday season.” (The map is no longer online.)

So far, the
prize for pure fused wordiness goes to a 215-page manual issued
in 2009 by the Virginia
Fusion Center
(VFC), filled with Keystone Kop-style passages
among pages that in their intrusive sweep are anything but funny.
The VFC warned, for instance, that “the Garbage Liberation
Front (GLF) is an ecological direct action group that demonstrates
the joining of anarchism and environmental movements.”
Among GLF’s dangerous activities well worth the watching,
the VFC included “dumpster diving, squatting, and train hopping.”

In a similarly
jaw-dropping manner, the manual claimed – the italics are mine
– that “Katuah Earth First (KEF), based in Asheville,
North Carolina, sends activists throughout the region to train and
engage in criminal activity. KEF has trained local environmentalists
in non-violent tactics, including blocking roads and leading demonstrations,
at action camps in Virginia.
While KEF has been primarily
involved in protests and university outreach, members have also
engaged in vandalism.” Vandalism! Send out an

The VFC also
warned that, “[a]lthough the anarchist threat to Virginia
is assessed as low, these individuals view the government as unnecessary,
which could lead to threats or attacks against government figures
or establishments.” It singled out the following 2008
incidents as worth notice:

– At the
Martinsville Speedway, “A temporary employee called in a bomb
threat during a Sprint Cup race… because he was tired of picking
up trash and wanted to go home.”

– In Missouri,
“a mobile security team observed an individual photographing
an unspecified oil refinery… The person abruptly left the scene
before he could be questioned.”

– Somewhere
in Virginia, “seven passengers aboard a white pontoon boat
dressed in traditional Middle Eastern garments immediately sped
away after being sighted in the recreational area, which is in close
proximity to” a power plant.

What idiot
or idiots wrote this script?

Given a disturbing
lack of evidence of terrorist actions undertaken or in prospect,
the authors even warned:

is likely that potential incidents of interest are occurring, but
that such incidents are either not recognized by initial responders
or simply not reported. The lack of detailed information for Virginia
instances of monitored trends should not be construed to represent
a lack of occurrence.”

Lest it be
thought that Virginia stands alone and shivering on the summit of
bureaucratic stupidity, consider an “intelligence report”
from the North Central Texas fusion center, which in a 2009 “Prevention
Awareness Bulletin” described, in
the ACLU’s words
, “a purported conspiracy between
Muslim civil rights organizations, lobbying groups, the anti-war
movement, a former U.S. Congresswoman, the U.S. Treasury Department,
and hip hop bands to spread tolerance in the United States, which
would ‘provide an environment for terrorist organizations
to flourish.’”

And those Virginia
and Texas fusion centers were hardly alone in expanding the definition
of “terrorist” to fit just about anyone who might oppose
government policies. According to a 2010 report in the Los
Angeles Times
, the Justice Department Inspector
General found that “FBI agents improperly opened investigations
into Greenpeace and several other domestic advocacy groups after
the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and put the names of some
of their members on terrorist watch lists based on evidence that
turned out to be ‘factually weak.’” The
Inspector General called “troubling” what the Los Angeles Times
described as “singling out some of the domestic groups
for investigations that lasted up to five years, and were extended
‘without adequate basis.’”

the FBI continued to maintain investigative files on groups like
Greenpeace, the Catholic Worker, and the Thomas Merton Center in
Pittsburgh, cases where (in the politely put words of the Inspector
General’s report) “there was little indication of any
possible federal crimes… In some cases, the FBI classified
some investigations relating to nonviolent civil disobedience under
its ‘acts of terrorism’ classification.” 

One of these
investigations concerned Greenpeace protests planned for ExxonMobil
shareholder meetings. (Note: I was on Greenpeace’s board
of directors during three of those years.) The inquiry was
kept open “for over three years, long past the shareholder meetings
that the subjects were supposedly planning to disrupt.” The
FBI put the names of Greenpeace members on its federal watch list.
Around the same time, an
ExxonMobil-funded lobby
got the IRS to audit Greenpeace.

This counterintelligence
archipelago of malfeasance and stupidity is sometimes fused with
ass-covering fabrication. In
on the day after Thanksgiving 2002 (“a slow
work day” in the Justice Department Inspector General’s
estimation), a rookie FBI agent was outfitted with a camera, sent
to an antiwar rally, and told to look for terrorism suspects.
The “possibility that any useful information would result
from this make-work assignment was remote,” the report added

agent was unable to identify any terrorism subjects at the event,
but he photographed a woman in order to have something to show his
supervisor. He told us he had spoken to a woman leafletter
at the rally who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, and that
she was probably the person he photographed.”

The sequel
was not quite so droll. The Inspector General found that FBI
officials, including their chief lawyer in Pittsburgh, manufactured
postdated “routing slips” and the rest of a phony paper
trail to justify this surveillance retroactively.

Moreover, at
least one fusion center has involved military intelligence in civilian
law enforcement. In 2009, a military operative from Fort Lewis,
Washington, worked
collecting information on peace groups in the Northwest.
 In fact, he helped run the Port Militarization Resistance
group’s Listserv. Once uncovered, he told activists
there were others doing similar work in the Army. How much
the military spies on American citizens is unknown and, at the moment
at least, unknowable.

Do we hear
an echo from the abyss of the counterintelligence programs of the
1960s and 1970s, when FBI memos – I have some in my own heavily
redacted files obtained through an FOIA request – were routinely
copied to military intelligence units?  Then, too, military
intelligence operatives spied on activists who violated no laws,
were not suspected of violating laws, and had they violated laws,
would not have been under military jurisdiction in any case.
During those years, more than 1,500 Army intelligence agents in
plain clothes were spying, undercover, on domestic political groups
(according to Military Surveillance of Civilian Politics, 1967-70,
an unpublished dissertation by former Army intelligence captain
Christopher H. Pyle). They posed as students, sometimes growing
long hair and beards for the purpose, or as reporters and camera
crews. They recorded speeches and conversations on concealed
tape recorders. The Army lied about their purposes, claiming they
were interested solely in “civil disturbance planning.”

Years later,
I met one of these agents, now retired, in San Francisco.
He knew more about what I was doing in the late 1960s than my mother


2009, President Obama
told the graduating class at the Naval
Academy that, “as Americans, we reject the false choice between
our security and our ideals.” Security and ideals: officially
we want both. But how do you square circles, especially in
a world in which “security” has often enough become
a stand-in for whatever intelligence operatives decide to do?

The ACLU’s
Tennessee office
sums the situation up nicely: “While
the ostensible purpose of fusion centers, to improve sharing of
anti-terrorism intelligence among different levels and arms of government,
is legitimate and important, using the centers to monitor protected
First Amendment activity clearly crosses the line.”
Nationally, the ACLU rightly worries
about who is in charge of fusion centers and by what rules they
operate, about what becomes of privacy when private corporations
are inserted into the intelligence process, about what the military
is doing meddling in civilian law enforcement, about data-mining
operations that Federal guidelines encourage, and about the secrecy
walls behind which the fusion centers operate.

Even when fusion
centers do their best to square that circle in their own guidelines,
like the ones obtained by the ACLU from Massachusetts’s Commonwealth
Fusion Center (CFC), the knots in which they tie themselves are
all over the page. Imagine, then, what happens when you let
informers or agents provocateurs loose in actual undercover

writes the Massachusetts CFC, “may not seek to gain access
to private meetings and should not actively participate in meetings…
 At the preliminary inquiry stage, sources and informants should
not be used to cultivate relationships with persons and groups that
are the subject of the preliminary inquiry.” So far
so good. Then, it adds, “Investigators may, however,
interview, obtain, and accept information known to sources and informants.”
By eavesdropping, say? Collecting trash?  Hacking?
All without warrants? Without probable cause?

and informants,” the guidelines continue, “are strictly
prohibited from engaging in any conduct the sole purpose of which
is to disrupt the lawful exercise of political activity, from disrupting
the lawful operations of an organization, from sowing seeds of distrust
between members of an organization involved in lawful activity,
or from instigating unlawful acts or engaging in unlawful or unauthorized
investigative activities.” Now, go back and note that
little, easy-to-miss word “sole.” Who knows just
what grim circles that tiny word squares?

Massachusetts CFC at least addresses the issue of entrapment: “Undercovers
should not become so involved in a group that they are participating
in directing the operations of a group, either by accepting a formal
position in the hierarchy or by informally establishing the group’s
policy and priorities. This does not mean an undercover cannot support
a group’s policies and priorities; rather an undercover should not
become a driving force behind a group’s unlawful activities.”
Did Cleveland’s fusion center have such guidelines?
Did they follow them? Do other state fusion centers?
We don’t know.

Whatever the
fog of surveillance, when it comes to informers, agents provocateurs,
and similar matters, four things are clear enough:

– Terrorist
plots arise, in the United States as elsewhere, with the intent
of committing murder and mayhem. Since 2001, in the U.S., these
have been almost exclusively the work of freelance Islamist ideologues
like the Tsarnaev brothers of Boston.  None have been connected
in any meaningful way with any legitimate organization or movement.

– Government
surveillance may in some cases have been helpful in scotching such
plots, but there is no evidence that it has been essential.  

– Even
based on the limited information available to us, since September
11, 2001, the net of surveillance has been thrown wide indeed.
Tabs have been kept on members of quite a range of suspect populations,
including American Muslims, anarchists, and environmentalists, among
others – in situation after situation where there was no probable
cause to suspect preparations for a crime.

– At least
on occasion – we have no way of knowing how often – agents
on government payrolls have spurred violence.

How much official
unintelligence is at work? How many demonstrations are being
poked and prodded by undercover agents? How many acts of violence
are being suborned? It would be foolish to say we know.
At least equally foolish would be to trust the authorities to keep
to honest-to-goodness police work when they are so mightily tempted
to take the low road into straight-out, unwarranted espionage and

This article
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28, 2013

Engelhardt [send him mail]
of the Nation Institute’s, is the co-founder of
the American Empire
. His book,
End of Victory Culture
, has recently been updated in a newly
issued edition. He edited, and his work appears in, the first best
of TomDispatch book,
World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire

(Verso), an alternative history of the mad Bush years. He is also
the author of
American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s
and The
United States of Fear
. His latest book is Terminator
Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050
Nick Turse).
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and
sociology at Columbia University, the chair of the PhD program in
communications, and the author of
Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of
the New Left
; The
Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage
; and Occupy
Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street

© 2013 Todd Gitlin

Best of Tom Engelhardt

Republished with permission from:: Lew Rockwell