The FBI has been regularly surveilling nonviolent activists campaigning for the closure of a U.S. military base that trains Latin American military officers and dictators, according to documents released today.
The 429 pages revealed at least 10 years of spying by the FBI’s Counterterrorism Unit and coordination with local law enforcement and intelligence, with tactics similar to those used against the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter protests.
“This is part of their long history of acting against anti-war movements,” Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, told teleSUR English.
“There is no terrorism threat in any of these activities, simply a political threat. And a good political threat, to change the direction of our society, change policies of their government. It's as far from terrorism as they can get.”
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund requested the documents from the FBI after the School of the Americas Watch, the 25-year-old organization leading protests against the renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, suspected surveillance. The group, which has thousands of members, identifies as pacifist and stages a variety of actions, including vigils for the victims of Latin American dictators and death squads, civil disobedience, teach-ins and parades with puppeteers, drummers and dancers.
According to Bill Quigley, a law professor and leader of the SOA Watch Legal Collective, the “dramatically upgraded” operations include sending undercover agents, arresting spectators, blasting patriotic music to drown out the sound of the reading of victims' names, sending low-flying helicopters, searching all protesters and building two fences and a barbed wire fence around the Fort Benning base in Georgia.
“It's really embarrassing that our government would waste resources like this, in addition to a violation of our constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly,” Quigley told teleSUR English. He added that the United States was founded on civil disobedience against the British monarchy and that the documents prove the worst side of U.S. politics. Such coercive practices are exactly what the SOA Watch is against: Fort Benning has trained officers in countries like Chile, Colombia, Honduras and Mexico “to suffocate dissent and social change” and carry out extrajudicial killings.
“We don't compare what's happened to us with other countries,” Quigley said. “But it's the same genesis, the same source, which is government abuse, and we are gonna fight against that.”
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The redacted documents, released after a long process with repeated efforts, are only part of a larger set that was not released. SOA Watch is working with the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund to obtain the rest, including from city and state law enforcement referenced in the files. Though the SOA Watch actions are repeatedly referred to as peaceful, the FBI justifies the ongoing case for the potential of the activists to radicalize, describing the group as a “factions of a radical cell.”
Verheyden-Hilliard said that she saw similar language in her case on Occupy Wall Street, where the FBI began investigating before tents were pitched. The “box checking” explanation for surveillance means that any political gathering can be treated “as if some kind of paramilitary operation.”
“The FBI has a substantial and long history of conducting itself in this way,” she said. “It's a clear programmatic element of its operations.”
In the 1970s, the Church Committee of the Senate investigated the intelligence gathering of the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency but only concluded that the agencies would be self-policing. Senator Frank Church, who chaired the committee, famously said that these agencies have the capacity for “total tyranny,” which is “the abyss from which there is no return.” The attorney general of the Department of Justice regularly tried to reign in the intelligence gathering capacities, but the regulations are “plainly inadequate” and without a legally enforceable mechanism, according to Verheyden-Hilliard.
SOA Watch activists were shocked, saddened and outraged when presented the documents, said Quigley, who worries that the findings may have a chilling effect on some of the members. Still, many have deepened their commitment and are currently in communication with — and often a part of — Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter to bring to Congress a proposal to check surveillance of groups engaged in political activism. Ultimately, said Verheyden-Hilliard, the change will come from the people once they have the knowledge about the ways in which counterterrorism operations are abused.
“The last 15 years, over and over again the government tells us that we must spend billions of tax dollars for intelligence agencies against the threat of domestic terrorism on American soil,” said Verheyden-Hilliard. “It's not a small irony that this is an organization that ... made it their life work to try to stop U.S. terrorism seated and trained in other countries, including more specifically throughout Latin America, and yet have counterterrorism directed against them.”