The FBI Has a Long History of Treating Political Dissent as Terrorism

A new report documents the FBI’s history of violating the civil rights of political dissidents.

Members of the labor union Industrial Workers of the World are freed after 18 months detention at Ellis Island in 1919. Photo: National Archives, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs

While terrorism in the U.S. is relatively rare, over the last decade most politically motivated violence has come at the hands of far-right extremists. Despite that reality, the FBI has devoted disproportionate resources to the surveillance of nonviolent civil society groups and protest movements, particularly on the left, using its mandate to protect national security to target scores of individuals posing no threat but opposing government policies and practices.

Since 2010, the FBI has surveilled black activists and Muslim Americans, Palestinian solidarity and peace activists, Abolish ICE protesters, Occupy Wall Street, environmentalists, Cuba and Iran normalization proponents, and protesters at the Republican National Convention. And that is just the surveillance we know of — as the civil liberties group Defending Rights & Dissent documents in a report published today. The report is a detailed catalog of known FBI First Amendment abuses and political surveillance since 2010, when the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General published the last official review of Bush-era abuses. The incidents the report references, many of which were previously covered by The Intercept, were largely exposed through public records requests by journalists, activists, and civil rights advocates. The FBI relentlessly fought those disclosures, and the documents we have were often so heavily redacted they only revealed the existence of initiatives like a “Race Paper” or an “Iron Fist” operation, both targeting racial justice activists, while giving away little detail about their content.

But the targeting of political dissent is nothing new for the FBI. In fact, one of the bureau’s first campaigns, which began a hundred years ago next month, was an abusive crackdown of politically active immigrants it viewed as disloyal potential terrorists.

On the second anniversary of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, law enforcement agents at the direction of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation — the FBI’s precursor — raided the Russian People’s House in New York City, where immigrants gathered to take classes, and beat and arrested everyone they found there. In the months following, local and federal police across major U.S. cities rounded up thousands of men and women, mostly foreign-born, who they accused of being subversives and Communists. The raids followed politically motivated investigations into immigrant associations, labor organizing groups, and leftist and anarchist circles.


Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, seen through the window of his home at in Washington, D.C., after it was bombed on June 2, 1919.

Photo: Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress

The Palmer Raids, as they came to be known, after Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, ushered in an era that tested the nation’s commitment to the civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution. One hundred years later, the FBI continues to target political dissent with a broad mandate, little oversight, and next to no transparency. The FBI continues to routinely conflate dissent with terrorism, and remains particularly fixated on leftist ideologies. Like the old bureau under Palmer, today’s FBI also casts its net around a wide range of civil society and social justice groups as well as racial and religious minorities.

“What is known is that there is a persistent pattern of monitoring civil society activity,” the report concludes, calling for strict oversight and reform of the bureau. “The FBI continuously singles out peace, racial justice, environmental, and economic justice groups for scrutiny. This is consistent with a decades-long pattern of FBI First Amendment abuses and suggests deeply seated political bias.”

After reviewing the report, a spokesperson for the FBI wrote in a statement to The Intercept that every activity the FBI conducts “must uphold the Constitution and be carried out in accordance with federal laws.” The spokesperson added that the bureau’s investigative activities “may not be based solely on the exercise of rights guaranteed by the First Amendment” and that its methods “are subject to multiple layers of oversight.” On its website, the bureau calls the Palmer Raids “certainly not a bright spot for the young Bureau” but adds that they did allow it to “gain valuable experience in terrorism investigations and intelligence work and learn important lessons about the need to protect civil liberties and constitutional rights.”

In fact, FBI violations of civil liberties and constitutional rights continued to be exposed at different points in the bureau’s history — most notably in the aftermath of the civil rights movement and in the post-9/11 years. Yet the bureau’s propensity for the policing of political dissent has remained largely unchallenged, the Defending Rights & Dissent report argues. “In the 100 years since the Palmer Raids,” asks Chip Gibbons, the report’s author, “how much has changed?”

People who have been arrested in the federal drive against radicals are shown as they arrive at Ellis Island, in New York City, on April 7, 1920. Deportation hearings are held on the island to determine whether they are to stay in the United States. (AP Photo)

People who had been arrested in the federal drive against radicals arrive at Ellis Island in New York City, on April 7, 1920.

Photo: AP

From the Palmer Raids to 9/11

The Palmer Raids were launched on November 7, 1919, on the heels of U.S. government panic about the spread of Bolshevism and anarchism in the country’s nascent labor movement, and following a series of bombings, including one targeting Palmer’s own house. In response, police officers carrying clubs and blackjacks but no arrest warrants stormed apartments and meeting rooms, and rounded up scores of mostly Eastern European and Italian immigrants they accused of being “leftists” and “subversives.” Over several months, 10,000 people were arrested in a dozen cities, with thousands held in detention and ordered deported. While most deportation orders were ultimately invalidated, more than 500 people were forcibly removed, according to the report.

The raids swept up hundreds of people with no connection to political movements and failed to yield anyone responsible for the bombings that had justified them. The abuse resulted in the first official efforts to put a check on the powers of the Bureau of Investigation, which had been established in 1908 over Congress’s opposition. At the time, legislators had feared the bureau would become a “secret police force” used to spy on Americans and infringe on civil liberties, but when Congress adjourned, President Theodore Roosevelt proceeded to set up the bureau anyway. The raids confirmed legislators’ fears.

“It was the first real awakening of a civil liberties consciousness in the country,” said Christopher Finan, author of a book on the Palmer Raids. “Because even though we had had the First Amendment for more than 100 years at that point, and we were philosophically committed to free speech, it hadn’t actually been protected. There really were no protections that could be thrown up to protect people when the Red Scare began.”

While groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, founded months after the raids began, have won important First Amendment battles, repeated legislative efforts to limit the powers of the FBI have been short-lived. Decades after the raids, the man who masterminded them — a 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover — went on to lead COINTELPRO, perhaps the FBI’s most infamous political policing operation. The revelation that the FBI had engaged in covert efforts to infiltrate, discredit, and sabotage the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s led to a Senate investigation, a moment of national reckoning, and reforms aimed at protecting First Amendment rights from government overreach.

“Unfortunately, after 9/11 those protections were removed and so the abuse that we had was not only predictable, but predicted,” said Mike German, a former FBI agent and outspoken critic of the agency. “It’s easy for a government that is focused on addressing national security threats to quickly begin to view any threat to that government’s hold of power as a security threat, rather than a political threat.”

"Occupy Wall Street" demonstrator stage a protest near Wall Street in New York, October 3, 2011. The protestors, speaking out against corporate greed and other issues carried on their occupation of Zuccotti Park, near the New York Stock Exchange, despite mass arrests over the weekend.  AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators stage a protest in Manhattan, New York, on Oct. 3, 2011.

Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

From Black Lives Matter to Abolish ICE

In the years after 9/11, civil rights organizations have repeatedly raised the alarm about intrusive and illegal FBI targeting of Muslim Americans. The public outcry eventually led to a review by the DOJ’s inspector general, which confirmed that FBI investigations had violated guidelines, though it fell short of finding that the bureau had been acting out of political bias.

As the Defending Rights & Dissent report notes, just days after the inspector general published its 2010 report on FBI abuses in the Bush era, agents raided the Minneapolis-based Anti-War Committee and the homes of peace activists across the Midwest. The raids followed a yearslong infiltration by an undercover agent who failed to find any plans by the activists to carry out violence and so proceeded to come up with one herself. A year later, the FBI began surveilling Occupy activists before the first protester even arrived at Zuccotti Park, using its counterterrorism authorities to investigate an economic justice movement it claimed might become “an outlet for a lone offender.” The FBI also worked with Walmart when the company learned Occupy members might join activists pushing for better working conditions through the OUR Walmart campaign, and it surveilled Occupy Chicago and infiltrated Occupy Cleveland. More recently, the FBI has monitored the Occupy/Abolish ICE movement, including by pressuring an activist and DACA recipient to inform on fellow protesters in exchange for help with his immigration case. The activist refused, and he eventually chose to leave the country voluntarily to avoid deportation.

FILE - In this Dec. 8, 2017, file photo, Red Fawn Fallis, of Denver, stands outside the federal courthouse in Bismarck, N.D. A federal judge is refusing to delay the upcoming trial of Fallis, who is accused of shooting at law officers during protests in North Dakota against the Dakota Access pipeline. She's pleaded not guilty to federal civil disorder and weapons charges. Her trial begins Jan. 29, 2018., in Fargo, N.D. (Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP, File)

Red Fawn Fallis stands outside the federal courthouse in Bismarck, N.D., on Dec. 8, 2017.

Photo: Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP

FBI agents and informants were a regular presence at the 2016 Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access pipeline, and the activist facing the longest prison sentence in connection to the protests, Red Fawn Fallis, was convicted of firing a gun that was registered to a confidential FBI informant with whom she had been romantically involved. Beyond Standing Rock, the FBI also continued its decadeslong effort to surveil environmental groups, tracking individuals associated with the Tar Sands Brigade, the Break Free from Fossil Fuel campaign, the anti-Keystone protest groups, and the group Rising Tide.

Over the last decade, the FBI also continued targeting Muslim Americans by attempting to coerce individuals who had been placed on the no-fly list into becoming informants and by monitoring the email accounts of prominent Muslim American leaders. In 2011, the FBI led the establishment of the deeply controversial Countering Violent Extremism Task Force, which civil rights advocates denounced as a thinly veiled attempt to enlist social workers, teachers, and community leaders into spying on their own communities. In other instances, FBI agents approached activists with Palestinian solidarity groups and questioned university students about their support for Palestine.

Agents also surveilled activists against police violence following protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, tracking their interstate movements and at some point warning that Islamic State group supporters were “urging” Ferguson protesters to join them. In 2017, documents leaked to Foreign Policy revealed the FBI had invented a nonexistent ideology, “Black Identity Extremism,” which it claimed was born “in response to perceived racism and injustice in American society.”

As The Intercept has reported, the only successful prosecution of individuals the FBI retroactively described as “Black Identity Extremists” — a category the bureau now claims to have dropped — came on the heels of the Ferguson protests. On that occasion, FBI informants recruited two young protesters into a plot to bomb multiple targets, providing them with both the plot and the fake bombs. As the Defending Rights & Dissent report notes, sting operations and the use of informants and agents provocateurs have become a staple of FBI operations in part because the courts have been “unwilling to find that their actions meet the legal definition of entrapment.”

“The FBI has embraced this flawed theory of radicalization, that it’s the ideas that are a problem, not the violence,” noted German, who recently published a book about the FBI’s post-9/11 years. “But also they have embraced a very aggressive sting operation protocol, no longer targeting people who are engaged in violence or illegal acts, but rather finding people who have ideas they don’t like, and then encouraging them to commit violent acts, and provide weapons to them to accomplish those acts, only to then arrest them.”

FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 17:  Demonstrators raise their arms and chant, "Hands up, Don't Shoot", as police clear them from the street as they protest the shooting death of Michael Brown on August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Police sprayed pepper spray, shot smoke, gas and flash grenades as violent outbreaks have taken place in Ferguson since the shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer on August 9th.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Demonstrators raise their arms and chant, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” as police clear them from the street during a protest of the shooting death of Michael Brown on Aug. 17, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

No Charter, No Oversight, No Transparency

To this day, the FBI lacks a statutory charter clearly outlining the bureau’s authority and its limits. Instead, the FBI’s powers and jurisdiction are set by the executive branch in the form of guidelines issued by the attorney general. These guidelines, technically subject to change under each DOJ administration, have been repeatedly relaxed through the bureau’s history. The current guidelines, set under former Attorney General Michael Mukasey in 2008, give the FBI authority to conduct both “predicated investigations,” based on factual evidence of crimes or threats to national security, and “assessments,” which require no such factual basis.

The standards for opening an assessment are extraordinarily low, the Defending Rights & Dissent report notes. Yet the FBI is allowed extremely intrusive investigative techniques in performing them, including physical surveillance, the use of informants, and pretextual interviews during which agents can misstate the purpose of the interview in order to elicit incriminating statements and even conceal their status as federal officials.

Also leading to abuse is the FBI’s reliance on a network of more than 175 “Joint Terrorism Task Forces” that bring together agents with members from hundreds of state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies. Because JTTFs, as they are called in national security lingo, are run by the FBI, they operate under FBI guidelines, which provide fewer protections for speech, privacy, and civil liberties than the rules governing local police and other law enforcement. While local pushback has so far led two cities — San Francisco and Portland, Oregon — to leave their task forces, JTTFs remain a key tool for the policing of dissent. “The FBI’s ability to do harm is somewhat held in check just by its small size,” said German. “But when it engages in partnerships with state and local law enforcement, that exponentially increases the size of the FBI.”

Across the country, activists have taken note. “I think a lot of us have just become used to being surveilled by the government,” said Mustafa Jumale, policy manager with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration based in Minneapolis, where the FBI has targeted Muslims and African immigrants. “The FBI has been harassing Somalis since I was in college. As a student, they used to just come to our student association, pull people out of class, all these things.”

Jumale added that some fellow activists, and particularly those who are not citizens, have scaled back their engagement in response to the surveillance, working “behind the scenes” but avoiding protests and public statements. But others noted that surveillance won’t succeed to intimidate a social justice movement that feels as urgent as ever.

“Activists today are knowledgeable and informed about COINTELRPO and previous iterations of surveillance of activists, and people are pretty hip to it. They understand the government may be watching them,” said Myaisha Hayes, an organizer with the racial justice group MediaJustice whose grandfather spent 45 years in prison over his involvement with the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army. “When people are oppressed and they’re fighting for greater justice and liberation, there are very few things that are going to stop them.”

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