November 20, 2002

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They spy
How law enforcement is keeping tabs on the new peace movement.

By A.C. Thompson

PERHAPS THE STORY of Malaysia Airlines Flight 91 is a harbinger of things to come for the nascent peace movement.

The Sept. 8 flight was poised to take off from Newark, N.J., for Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and a final destination of Kabul, Afghanistan, when agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation strode aboard. The G-men escorted seven passengers off the plane and into a room where they were interrogated for six hours. Flight 91 took off without the group.

Their offense? Signing up for a two-week "Reality Tour" of bomb-pocked Afghanistan, a junket organized by San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange.

"They wanted to know about Global Exchange," says one of the detainees, Glenda Marsh, a Sacramento peace activist and state-employed biologist. "They asked me if I'd heard the people I was traveling with make anti-American statements."

Now Marsh is preparing to file a Freedom of Information Act request to see if the FBI is compiling a dossier on her.

Hints of a new wave of COINTELPRO-style government surveillance first surfaced in fall 1999 as protesters gearing up for the World Trade Organization's meeting in Seattle complained about infiltration by undercover cops and federal agents. After Sept. 11, 2001, the feds embarked on an unprecedented and brazen campaign of domestic spying. Leading the charge, Attorney General John Ashcroft signaled his intent to spy on law-abiding religious congregations and political groups and pushed through the USA PATRIOT Act, which vastly expanded the government's phone-tapping and e-mail-monitoring powers and broke down barriers between the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI. Now there's mounting evidence that government agents – returning to the ways of J. Edgar Hoover – are monitoring political dissidents.

According to Steve Filandrinos, the Global Exchange staffer who organized the tour, the FBI agents wanted to know why the group, which included five Afghan Americans, was headed overseas and who was sending them there. The tours, Filandrinos explains, "are a way to give Americans a chance to connect with Afghans involved in the reconstruction process, to make sure Americans know what's going on there, and to bear witness to the [U.S.-led] bombing."

While the waylaid tourists eventually made it to Kabul, their fun with the federal government wasn't over. Flying into Los Angeles International Airport Sept. 20, one member of the group was grabbed by U.S. Customs Service agents outside the airport, and another was called at home by the FBI for more questioning eight days later.

The Global Exchange incident echoes the widely reported hassles of Jan Adams and Rebecca Gordon, founders of War Times, a San Francisco publication critical of President George W. Bush's passion for dropping ordnance on foreign countries. On Aug. 7, Adams and Gordon were attempting to fly from San Francisco to Boston when they were detained by police and informed that their names were on a list of people under scrutiny by the FBI. "We can only assume that the government is laboring under the misapprehension that we're terrorists," Adams says.

Neither woman has ever been charged with any serious crime, though both have been arrested for civil disobedience.

After calls to police headquarters and two searches by airport security, Adams and Gordon were escorted onto the plane.

There are several ways all of this government scrutiny could play out. If the new peace movement develops the muscle to paralyze major cities – à la antiglobalizers – it may find the feds doing more than discreetly keeping tabs and occasionally pulling suspected troublemakers off airplanes. There's the real possibility that FBI agents will covertly slip into the movement with the aim of crippling it from within (a favored tactic in the 1960s against the Black Panthers and the New Left) or enticing more-militant activists to participate in felonious behavior (as the bureau did more recently with Earth First! and the militia and white separatist movements).

"Surveillance and intelligence gathering are back," asserts Dennis Cunningham, an attorney who has sued the FBI repeatedly, most recently on behalf of Earth First!ers Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney. "What's to stop them from engaging in disruptive activity designed to neutralize a movement?"

Another possibility is that prosecutors could start collecting information on movement leaders with an eye toward using the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute. Designed to take down mafiosi and loaded with stiff penalties, RICO targets key members of groups that engage in a pattern of criminal activity, and the case could be made that protesters who repeatedly disrupt business as usual fit that bill. In fact, that case has already been made: the RICO statute was employed by the National Organization for Women in a 1998 civil suit against abortion clinic blockaders in Chicago. The save-the-fetuses side lost and was ordered to pay $255,000 in damages.

Ashcroft's baby, the PATRIOT Act, includes some language similar to that of RICO, and could be put to use as well.

Cunningham speculates that "we'll see them use the PATRIOT Act first. They want to put it to the test, see what they can do with it."

E-mail A.C. Thompson at ac_thompson@sfbg.com.