At a time when the Obama Administration's defense and security policies are being more and more debated, particularly its intensive use of drone strikes, a new document illustrates the vagaries of the American antiterrorist struggle. It's a report published this week by the progressive NGO "Center for Media and Democracy" (CMD), showing how the framework of the War on Terror put in place after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, gave birth to a surveillance network used against activists for Occupy Wall Street, a citizens' movement born in the United States on Sept. 17, 2011, to protest the effects of the economic crisis and denounce the defense of the interests of the rich, rebaptized the "1%," to the detriment of the other 99%.
Entitled "Dissent or Terror: How the Nation's Counter Terrorism Apparatus, In Partnership With Corporate America, Turned on Occupy Wall Street," the report analyzes documents exchanged in 2011 and 2012 by different agents in the American struggle against terrorism and obtained by journalist Beau Hoday, a CMD associate, through the Freedom of Information Act.
On page 36, this excerpt summarizes the heart of the investigation: "One thing is clear: a reading of 'fusion center' and FBI records obtained by DBA/CMD shows that 'counter terrorism' personnel employed in the complex web of the nation's 'homeland security' aparatus have been all too eager to monitor -- to the point of obsession -- the OWS movement . . ." The result? Practices that are revealed, in some cases, to be abusive, even illegal, absurd, and often useless against activists exercising their right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendent of the U.S. Constitution.
Journalist Beau Hodai studies above all the case of Arizona, where he studied how the Occupy Movement that took root in the city of Phoenix was surveiled from its inception by city police and local antiterrorism agents, working in concert in the aforementioned "Fusion Center." A center initially created to "anticipate the terrorist threat" and "collect information about weapons of mass destruction."
Analysts Paid for Surveillance of Facebook Pages
He first informs us that to justify the surveillance of citizens who were not suspected of any criminal activity the forces of order relied on the vague vocabulary of the laws making up the PATRIOT Act that was passed in October 2001, allowing them to fight not only a terrorist threat but just about any kind of crime or danger, in the name of protecting "the critical infrastructures of the nation and its key resources." For example, banks, in front of which Occupy activists planned to demonstrate.
We then see how this surveillance was carried out. This goes from hiring a full-time analyst who explains, in an email obtained by the CMD, that one of the his daily tasks is surveillance of the social networks of Occupy activists (especially their Facebook pages); to the infiltration of an agent into the movement, passing himself off as a homeless person attending their meetings (which created suspicions among activists). We also learn how an email sent by a Mr. So-and-So to the members of the surveillance network that began "Please leave the Occupy movement alone, it speaks for me and a large part of America . . . You shouldn't keep us from existing" gave rise to an investigation of this person.
These revelations offer an absurd image of the antiterrorist fight, which is also expensive. The Phoenix fusion center thus received federal aid of $1 million to create two intelligence analyst jobs, and $71,000 were allocated to the person whose chief role was watching Occupy militants in Phoenix and Tucson on the social networks, as well as some "tribals," as CMD notes, referring to American Indians.
Matthew Rothschild, the editor-in-chief of The Progressive and author of You Have No Rights: Stories of America in an Age of Repression, recalls that there is of course nothing new about political surveillance and infiltration. "This tendency of the FBI, which was very common in the 1960s, has come back strong after Sept. 11, 2001, taking aim both at university campuses and groups like Code Pink (a women's antiwar group) . . . That Occupy was or is surveiled is not a great revelation. On the other hand, I didn't think that the surveillance was organized to such a great extent. And the link between the police and the private sector is astonishing!" he said.
Information Passed on to the Private Sector
In fact, the CMD report becomes even more surprising when it reveals that the information collected on Occupy Wall Street was sometimes passed on to private businesses. In that chapter, we begin by learning that police officers of the city of Phoenix worked underground as security agents for a big meeting of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) in one of the city's hotels in November 2011... ALEC brings together elected officials and big business representatives whose goal is to think up and propose bills that favorable to its members, who have conservative and pro-business views.
We learn a few lines later that this same group, representing private interests, was given by the fusion center, without anyone knowing why, a directory of "potential disturbing elements" belonging to the Occupy Wall Street movement, who might demonstrate in front of the hotel.
"Neither the police nor the antiterrorist agencies were paid for that!" says Matthew Rothschild angrily. "The CMD report shows that the counter terrorism agencies are providing private security for big business, when absolutely nothing indicates that they're being threatened," says Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College sociologist who works on police methods and the surveillance of Occupy. "That raises many questions, obviously... This report shows that the primary mission of these entities, these fusion centers, has drifted toward political surveillance without people knowing either how or why, and whether Congress and by extension the American people wanted that."
Because Arizona is only a single case... The CMD mentions the case of Boston in particular, where the fusion center also showed itself to be obsessed by Occupy, described here and there as an anarchist group. A revelation that is sure to inspire investigations, one month after the attacks that have hit the city.
In the case of Boston, Alex Vitale prefers to remain cautious, for there's no evidence that Boston's antiterrorist unit failed in its mission. "You have to watch out for short cuts... What these documents already show us is that resources that were supposed to be allocated to antiterrorism where diverted. And it's not normal that the federal government infiltrate a movement that's done nothing illegal." Did these efforts kill Occupy? No, according to the sociologist, who thinks that mayors' edicts preventing activists from camping out in public places undermined the movement.
It remains to be explained how the fusion centers came to concentrate to this extent on Occupy Wall Street. "Is it the choice of leaders at the local level, the reaction of teams that are bored and who start to surveil easy targets? Or is it a decision coming from the Dept. of Justice in Washington, and that informed the fusion centers' actions?" asks Alex Vitale.
A version of this article was originally published in Mediapart (France). Translated by Mark K. Jensen.