Summary (prepared by SOAW)
What was requested: At our request, Washington DC justice lawyer Mara Verheyden-Hilliard made written demand on the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), for copies of all FBI records on the School of the Americas Watch organization (SOAW).
What was produced: Over 420 pages of documents were produced by the FBI covering the period from 2000 to 2010. Over 75 pages of documents were withheld by the FBI.
What did the FBI documents show? For years, the FBI reported and compiled annual files on the SOAW protest while at the same time repeatedly describing the event and the organization as peaceful. For many years, these reports were sent to the Counterterrorism division of the FBI. The FBI sought out and used undercover informants to seek information about the group and its actions. The FBI had undercover FBI agents in attendance for at least two years. The FBI reports demonstrate a close working relationship with Columbus Police Department, Muscogee County Sheriff’s Department and Georgia State Police. The reports also show the annual protest was designated by the FBI as a Special Events Readiness Level (SERL) event which involved coordination of law enforcement with the US Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security.
SOAW is appealing the FBI’s withholding of responsive material from the public including additional documents as well as redactions and deletions in the materials provided. The FBI response indicated that U.S. Army Intelligence also participated in this surveillance operation and we are filing a relevant FOIA request for responsive material. These documents also indicate there are a large number of documents in the hands of local law enforcement as well and this will be followed up.
What is the importance of these documents? FBI agents, including Counterterrorism agents, have for years been surveilling, reporting and gathering intelligence on First Amendment protected political speech and actions of the SOAW movement. This is despite the fact that the FBI repeatedly describes our actions as peaceful. The FBI and its Counterterrorism Division have surveilled SOAW just as they have members of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Occupy Movement and various parts of the peace and justice movements for years. SOAW will not allow the government to intimidate or silence our movement for human rights. We call on Congress to review these actions, hold the FBI accountable, and take corrective action. We stand for justice and human rights with our sisters and brothers across the world and like them we will not be silenced.
Highlights of Documents produced by the FBI
2000 – July 10, 2001. The FBI opened a case file on the SOAW in July of 2000 after thousands of people entered onto Ft. Benning pursuant to a nonviolent protest in fall of 1999. The FBI report of the Atlanta office states: “It is hereby recommended a case be opened and maintained as part of an ongoing process at Ft. Benning. The protest has been building for the past ten years. At times the participants have caused damage to government properties. The leadership of this organization have promised a non-violent protest at any organized event.” A report on November 20, 2000 indicates an unnamed source advised the FBI that people associated with the World Trade Organization protests planned to attend the protest and “if attacks were to take place, the planning would be at a gathering a quarter of a mile from the main gate on Saturday November 18, 2000.”
From 2000 – 2010 FBI officers reported on each SOAW protest. Reports demonstrate close working relationship with Columbus Police Department, Muscogee County Sheriff’s Department and Georgia State Police. Reports included estimates of the numbers of people attending the protest and the names and numbers of those arrested.
2001 – Correspondence between various FBI offices about Oberlin College student arrested at protest.
November 13, 2001 FBI Pre-protest report that Columbus Police Department (CPD) and Muscogee County Sheriff Office (MCSO) “have collected uncorroborated, non-sourced intelligence that allegedly anarchist elements will travel to Columbus to cause problems.” Discussion of anthrax hoax preparedness. Request that “all agents contact appropriate sources regarding travel to this event by known criminals regarding any planned actions in conjunction with the protest.” A FBI note on November 15, 2001 states “This is being forwarded to the Atlanta Bomb Techs as the possibility of a hoax device or bomb threat also exists. Local and military assets are available to handle same…”
2003 – In 2003, the FBI started to report on the event to the COUNTERTERRORISM DIVISION. On October 14, 2003, in a memo designated PRIORITY, the FBI reported on the protest to Counterterrorism Division “The leaders of the SOA Watch have taken strides to impart upon the protest participants that the protest should be a peaceful event.” The FBI report also noted “The primary issue of the protest is the funding and training by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of State of Latin American military officers at the Ft. Benning, GA military installation. This event draws protestors who object to human rights violation conducted in these countries, and more specifically, to the event in which a group of Catholic missionaries were murdered in Central America.” FBI Headquarters and Counterterrorism were requested to provide the Atlanta FBI office “with all intelligence relevant to the SOA, so that this information can be provided to local/military law enforcement agencies.”
October 23, 2003 in another memo to FBI Counterterrorism, the Atlanta FBI requested that the Miami Division of the Domestic Terrorism Intelligence Squad, provide any and all information on Anti-Free Trade area of The Americas Anarchist Movement protest. The FBI was “concerned that factions of a radical cell will travel to [the protest] and may implement or instigate violent and destructive behavior.” If contained in Miami, “this may encourage factions of the protestors to travel to Columbus/Ft Benning to assert themselves in what may be viewed as a softer target of opportunity.” The past has been mostly peaceful. Any advance warning to the CRA of a group or groups of more aggressive protest participants …is imperative.” Representatives of the Columbus Police Department and the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office went to Miami to see how police there handled protest. The memo concludes by saying “The Columbus Police and military authorities have successfully controlled approximately ten thousand, mostly peaceful protestors in past years. Any advance warning …of a group or groups of more aggressive protest participants planning to continue their acts of civil disobedience in Columbus/Ft. Benning is imperative.” The FBI after protest report to Counterterrorism, dated December 29, 2003 noted “Other than the cited compliant trespassers, the even was peaceful. The arrestees did not resist being taken into custody. It has been and apparently continues to be the agenda of the SOA Watch to use the court system as the platform for furthering their cause. ..Overall the crowd was peaceful in their actions and the SOA Watch leadership appear to foster that type of environment.” They also noted the Columbus Police videotaped the entire event.
2004 – In September 2004 the FBI communicated with a confidential source in the Northeast US more than once about SOAW. The informant told the FBI that “SOA Watch has called out for more individuals and affinity groups to attend this year’s protest.” The source also shared a “compiled manual for affinity groups, with telephone number of Legal Advisor from Loyola University (Louisiana)” and provided the FBI with the names and email addresses of relevant contact persons associated with the SOA Watch group.
On October 8, 2004, the FBI asked Counterterrorism to prove “any and all intelligence particularly from any inside sources who are involved in the protest planning. This information will be provided to local authorities for their planning purposes.”
A FBI memo to Counterterrorism dated November 30, 2004 stated “This year’s protest was peaceful as it has been for the most part over the past fifteen years. The only change of note was the inability of the police to use hand wands to check for metal and weapons. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled this was a violation of the protestors’ constitutional rights.”
2005 – On September 8, 2005, there is a FBI report by Confidential Informant who said SOAW wanted mass crossing the line in nonviolent cd to overwhelm the base resources and tie up the judicial system. The CI identified one person: “Individual identified BLANK as an organizer intending to cross the line. BLANK was said to belong to a group called “Witness for Peace.” Individual said that BLANK is, or was a Maryknoll nun.” Informant also reported much of the organizing is originating from Twin Ports SOA Watch and gave the name and address of organizer who was schedule to speak at Oxford College on September 20, 2005.”
October 3, 2005, the FBI requested that the SOAW protest be designated a Special Events Readiness Level (SERL). SERL events involve coordination between local law and state law enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency with the US Secret Service designated as the lead agency. The memo states the FBI and others will provide intelligence to local police and military personnel that may impact the security of the event. The FBI also requested intelligence regarding the SOA and promised to provide intelligence to the Columbus Resident Agency. “The peaceful intentions of the SOA Watch leaders has been demonstrated over the years. The concern has always been that a militant group would infiltrate the protestors and use of the cover of the crowd to create problems. At this time, there are no specific or known threats to this event.”
2006 – October 10, 2006 FBI report to Counterterrorism contained information on threat assessment from intelligence and open source reporting and BLANKED OUT. Report dated October 12, 2006 indicates the FBI talked with confidential informant who reported “there was a group organizing direct action and there were individuals committed to taking their cause to the close the SOA directly onto the base. International and national organizing in other places was also reported including Fort Huachuca and Colorado. Individuals from all over the US are planning to attend plus a large contingent from Canada.” In the FBI report on the 2006 protest, they noted that the Army blasting of music to interfere with the protest, led the police to complain that they could not hear each other.
2007 – October 3, 2007 FBI report to Counterterrorism noted the captioned event as a Special Events Readiness Level. Appears to follow the 2005 report promising to provide intelligence to local police and military, noting the peaceful intentions of the SOA Watch leaders and admitting there were no specific or known threats to this event.
2009 – On November 13, 2009 the FBI reported “There have never been any significant incidents of violence or widespread property damage in connection with this event.” They also noted that undercover FBI agents will be in attendance again. “As in 2008, a small contingent of FBI personnel, acting in an undercover capacity, will be present to monitor the activities of predicated subjects of FBI-Minneapolis, who are expected to attend. These subjects have never expressed or exhibited a propensity for violence at any time….Due to the nature of this investigation and the fact that undercover employees need to maintain their cover, local and state law enforcement will not be notified in advance of their presence at this open and public event.”
 US Department of Justice public document. Edward Connors, PLANNING AND MANAGING SECURITY FOR MAJOR SPECIAL EVENTS: Guidelines for Law Enforcement. (2007) online at: http://www.ilj.org/publications/docs/Managing_Security_for_Major_Special_Events.pdf