A U.S. District Court judge says the FBI’s reasons for withholding information on assassination plots against Occupy movement leaders in several U.S. cities aren’t good enough.
It was quietly reported last June that the FBI was aware that an organization — possibly a law enforcement agency — had plans to assassinate leaders of the Occupy movement, and the bureau did nothing about it. Now a U.S. District Court judge says the FBI has some explaining to do.
Not only did the FBI not intervene at all, but it didn’t even alert or notify the leaders of Occupy movements in several cities whose lives were threatened. Their inaction goes against the bureau’s practice of informing potential victims of violent threats made against them.
The public and Occupy leaders only learned about the assassination plans after documents containing the information were obtained by the human and civil rights advocacy group, Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Though the documents largely detailed how the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. military and private corporations had flagged Occupy Wall Street protesters as “domestic terrorists” and “criminals” in order to spy on them, there was one paragraph on page 61 that caught the group’s attention.
“An identified [redacted] of October planned to engage in sniper attacks against protesters in Houston, Texas, if deemed necessary. An identified [redacted] had received intelligence that indicated the protesters in New York and Seattle planned similar protests in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, Texas. [Redacted] planned to gather intelligence against the leaders of the protest groups and obtain photographs then formulate a plan to kill the leadership via suppressed sniper rifles.”
A few pages later is this sentence: “[REDACTED] interested in developing a long-term plan to kill local Occupy leaders via sniper fire.”
Since the document was heavily redacted, which is rare for FOIA requests, it’s not known who made the threats against Occupy, but thanks to a doctoral student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., that may soon change.
FBI’s fight against FOIA
MIT doctoral student Ryan Noah Shapiro, an alleged FOIA expert, filed an FOIA request with the FBI after the release of the initial documents. He was hoping to learn more about the assassination plot for his study on “conflicts at the nexus of American national security, law enforcement and political dissent.” Specifically, Shapiro said he was interested in the threats made against leaders of Occupy Houston.
The FBI claimed it was only able to find 17 pages of information regarding his request and gave him access to five of those pages, which were partially redacted. The agency said the other 12 pages could not be released even in a redacted form because they contained information that was part of an ongoing investigation. But as Shapiro and many others reasoned, if the FBI was truly conducting an investigation into the alleged assassination threats made against Occupy leaders in several cities throughout the United States, they would have more than 17 pages total regarding the case.
On April 29, 2013, Shapiro filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., arguing that he should be granted access to the other 12 pages because, as his complaint stated, “There is presently a vigorous and extraordinarily important debate in the United States about the authority of the government to conduct extrajudicial killings on American soil.”
“The records sought by plaintiff would likely be an invaluable contribution to the public discourse on this issue. It would also be a significant controversy if it was revealed that the FBI deliberately failed to act to prevent a plot to assassinate American protest leaders.”
The FBI filed a motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that there are several exemptions under the FOIA guidelines and that they released all non-exempt records to Shapiro. On March 12, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary M. Collyer issued her order in the case, along with an accompanying memo, saying that the FBI needed to explain why the agency cited “law enforcement exemption” as its reason for denying Shapiro access to the other 12 pages.
In her ruling, Collyer wrote: “(Shapiro) argues that FBI has not established that it actually conducted an investigation into criminal acts, specified the particular individual or incident that was the object of its investigation, adequately described the documents it is withholding under Exemption 7, or sufficiently connected the withheld documents to a specific statute that permits FBI to collect information and investigate crimes.
“Mr. Shapiro further alleges that FBI has failed to state a rational basis for its investigation or connection to the withheld documents, which he describes as overly-generalized and not particular. On the latter point, the Court agrees.”
In short, Judge Collyer didn’t think the FBI’s argument that Occupy protesters in Houston were involved in “potential criminal activity” such as “domestic terrorism” and “advocating overthrow of the government” was a good enough reason to keep the documents out of Shapiro’s hands.
Collyer gave the FBI until April 9 to either provide a more satisfactory explanation or hand over the information Shapiro requested. The FBI has been allowed to file its response under seal.
Am I a target?
In the meantime, leaders of targeted Occupy movements such as Benjamin Franklin of Occupy Houston, have been left in the dark, wondering if they were a target or if a fellow Occupy member was targeted.
Franklin, a member of the group since its formation in 2011, explained to MintPress News that while he doesn’t know for sure what prompted Occupy Houston leaders to become targets, he believes it has to do with the group’s protests against the oil industry, such as the Keystone XL pipeline.
He explained that Houston’s oil and banking industries are deeply embedded with one another.
“If you’re challenging the status quo, you’re challenging oil,” Franklin said of the Occupy movement in Houston.
Franklin said he finds it particularly interesting that while the FBI had evidence that Occupy leaders were being targeted, they didn’t do anything about it. This has prompted Franklin and others to wonder if the Houston Police Department was behind the threats.
“Houston has a bad history of violent, racist police officers,” Franklin said, explaining that this is why he believes it’s possible the FBI may have opted to not notify Occupy leaders in order to protect their fellow law enforcement colleagues.
Franklin said this never would have happened to a local Democratic Party or a Tea Party group, but the Occupy movement has long been treated with suspicion due to the various grassroots causes it supports.
After listing a slew of possible scenarios for why the FBI would try to cover this up, Franklin said that though he doesn’t know why the agency did what it did, since the FBI was caught trying to cover up this information, it’s all the more reason why the public should have access to the documents in their entirety.