Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, numerous student groups and anti-war organizations claim police have been spying on them. Surveillance of student groups and anti-war protesters is nothing new, but the instances of alleged unconstitutional surveillance keep piling up in an era of anti-terrorism police work. Domestic surveillance has been made more easy for authorities through the creation of fusion centers, allowing authorities to aggregate resources and compile anti-terrorism intelligence.
According to the Department of Homeland Security website, there are now 53 primary fusion centers and 25 recognized fusion centers across the U.S. In a recent case from Seattle, community members claim that a third-degree convicted sex offender named Robert Childs has attempted to infiltrate and spy on activist groups in Seattle, Wash. according to reports by Seattle weekly newspaper the Stranger. Activists say that Childs had been attending local events and suspected he was collecting information for police — a job he has done before.
Technically, there is nothing illegal about using a convicted sex offender as an informant, but activists and civil liberties organizations have reported a growing number of cases in which police have used dubious intelligence-gathering methods. The Port Militarization Resistance (PMR), Iraq Vets Against the War and other anti-war groups in Olympia, Wash. say the military has illegally spied on their protests, according to reports by the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) dating back to 2009.
Using criminals to collect evidence
Much of the information about Childs’ movements comes from unconfirmed blog posts and emails from activists who say they are being spied on.
The Stranger reports that activists from anarchist groups in the Seattle area say that Childs attended barbeques and local events starting in May 2012. Posing as an interested activist, one individual wrote an email to The Stranger claims, “[Childs] wanted to do a lot of work to get ‘inside.’ … He helped fold chairs, offered his car, was real open to helping with anything.”
Activists eventually connected the dots and realized that Childs, who went by the name “Robert Vincent” on his Facebook, was actually a previous sex offender and former FBI informant.
“He was there to gather information,” one activist wrote in an email to the Stranger. ” … and is famously remembered for asking about the ‘leaders’ of the black bloc.”
The black bloc isn’t a formal group with leaders, but rather groups of anarchists who typically wear all-black clothes, attend demonstrations and destroy property.
It’s not yet clear what exactly Childs was doing at the local events, but activists say his presence is deeply concerning. “Whether or not he was specifically assigned by the FBI or SPD to attend the barbecues, the idea that one of their paid informants who had been convicted of rape and child molestation showed up at family-oriented events on false pretenses to fish around for information about political activists is appalling,” writes Brendan Kiley.
It wouldn’t be the first time law enforcement used Childs as an informant.
The Seattle Times reported in March that Seattle police and the FBI paid Childs $90,000 for his help investigating Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif, a man sentenced to 18 years in prison earlier this year for plotting to attack a military entrance processing station with automatic weapons and grenades.
Childs approached authorities about the project and they agreed to let him build a relationship with Abdul-Latif. Abdul-Latif got 18 years after Childs introduced him to an FBI agent posing as a weapons dealer.
Prosecutors were seeking a life sentence for Abdul-Latif but had to settle for an 18-year plea bargain largely because evidence possessed by Childs was accidentally erased before it could be presented in a trial.
U.S. District Judge James Robart criticized what he called “at-best sloppy” destruction of potential evidence by Childs and Seattle police Detective Samuel DeJesus, who deleted more than 400 text messages from Childs’ cell phone after he’d been told by investigators to preserve them.
“It’s not the saints who can bring us the sinners,” said U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, defending the decision to use evidence submitted by Childs.
Activist groups with no previous record of criminal activity claim that this is indicative of a troubling trend of dubious surveillance and intelligence gathering methods.
Overreach and constitutional violations
In 2009, a group of students and anti-war activists in Olympia filed a case claiming that a man named John Towery had posed as an activist for two years while he gathered information about the activities of the Port Militarization Resistance, a group that sought to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through civil disobedience.
The PMR took part in nonviolent occupations in 2006 attempting to block shipments of weapons and war materials from entering or leaving the Port of Olympia. “We oppose Olympia’s complicity in a war whose disastrous effects have been felt worldwide and we will actively resist the use of Olympia’s port to further that war. … Through nonviolent actions we intend to stop the Port of Olympia from becoming a revolving door of military machinery furthering illegal war,” a group statement read.
Towery is alleged to have also kept tabs on Students for a Democratic Society, the Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace, the Industrial Workers of the World, Iraq Veterans Against the War, an anarchist bookstore in Tacoma and other activist groups.
These groups are being represented by the National Lawyers Guild, which claims the intelligence gathering violated the First and Fourth Amendment rights of activists.
Additionally, Towery was hired by the U.S. Army, meaning that if the allegations are true, it would be a direct violation of the Posse Comitatus Act, which prevents U.S. military deployment for domestic law enforcement.
In a December 2012 decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the NLG case challenging military spying on peace activists can proceed. It could become a historic precedent as this ruling marked the first time a court has affirmed people’s ability to sue the military for violating their First and Fourth Amendment rights.
“This has never been done before,” said NLG member attorney Larry Hildes, who is handling the case. “The U.S. government has spied on political dissidents throughout history and this particular plot lasted through two presidencies, but never before has a court said that we can challenge it the way we have.”
The case Panagacos v. Towery, was first brought by Hildes in 2009 on behalf of a group of Washington state anti-war activists.
More recently, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a national student labor organization fighting for workers’ rights with student leaders on 150 campuses across the U.S.,has held protests against the GAP, Adidas and other major retailers seen as abusive toward its workforce.
The Washington Post reported last month that a Washington, D.C. police officer known as “Rizzy,” posing as an activist who supported the group, illegally infiltrated and monitored the group. USAS has filed a lawsuit claiming that the officer didn’t even have permission from her superiors to be deployed in an undercover capacity.
“The allegation is not that the undercover officer took photos and videos of USAS, but that she should not have been deployed in an undercover capacity in the first place,” said Jeffrey Light, an attorney representing USAS, in a written statement to Mint Press News.
Light elaborated on this point in a statement to the Washington Post, claiming that the officer likely wasn’t given orders to attend rallies and keep tabs on the group.
“I cannot think of any legitimate reason for the police to be sending an undercover officer to those [protests],” Light said. “She was handing out fliers, asking to be put on email list and asking about future events. If the police wanted to know that, they could’ve checked the website.”
Students from USAS say they are baffled, unsure as to why the police would want to spy on their group. “It’s a little bit disturbing that she was that careless. I really couldn’t say why we were targeted. We are a non-violent group,” Jan Von Tol, a national organizer for USAS, told Mint Press News.
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