How the FBI Goes After Activists

By Charles Davis

Illustrations by Nick Gazin

Tom Burke was driving through a sleepy part of Grand Rapids, Michigan—an empty neighborhood full of abandoned warehouses—when he first noticed the vehicle tailing him. “I was like, Why is this car turning left whenever I turn left?” he recalled. “I figured out I was being followed.”

Tom, a 49-year-old who has been active in antiwar and labor circles for decades, had been monitored for months by the FBI, and that morning, September 24, 2010, the Bureau was moving against him and his fellow activists. Agents had raided the homes of some of Tom’s friends, seizing computers and tearing apart rooms as part of an investigation into whether they were planning an armed revolution and providing aid to terrorist organizations. In response, Tom was on his way to an internet café to issue a press release telling the world what was happening, which was about all he could do given the circumstances.

That same morning, he and his wife were served with subpoenas demanding they testify before a grand jury. By December, 23 activists across the Midwest were subpoenaed and asked to answer for their activism. Among other things, they were accused of providing “material support” for terrorism, a charge that can mean anything from providing guns to a terrorist group to providing any sort of “advice or assistance” to members of such a group, even if that advice is “lay down your arms.” (Former president Jimmy Carter warned a few months before the raids that the threat of a “material support” charge “inhibits the work of human-rights and conflict-resolution groups.”)

Nearly four years later no one has been charged with a crime, and an unsealed affidavit, which the FBI used to get a federal judge to sign off on the 2010 raids, even notes that this group of mostly middle-aged peace activists explicitly rejected the idea of providing arms to anyone. The document, released by court order last month in response to requests from the activists, shows that an undercover special agent was intent on luring people into saying ominous things about “revolution” and, sometimes, some of these people indulged her, which provided the pretext for legally harassing a group known to oppose US policy at home and abroad.

The FBI first became interested in Tom and his fellow travelers on the eve of the 2008 Republican National Convention in Saint Paul, Minnesota, when the bureau that purports to keep America safe sent an undercover agent who went by the name “Karen Sullivan” to infiltrate the Twin Cities Anti-War Committee, one of the most prominent groups organizing protests outside the convention. The agent couldn’t uncover any wrongdoing whatsoever, but soon she made her way to another left-wing organization in the Midwest, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), a group that includes Tom and a number of other activists who received subpoenas.

Her cover was fashioned to appeal to the bleeding-heart leftists she sought to entrap and imprison—“Karen’s” identity was practically a caricature of a socialist activist.

“She presented herself as a lesbian with a teenage daughter,” Jess Sundin, a founding member of the Anti-War Committee who also belongs to the FRSO, said in a 2011 interview with Nick Pinto of the Minneapolis City Pages. The agent told activists she had a rough childhood and spent years on the streets after first her parents and then the military kicked her out for being gay. She laid it on thick, in other words.

“I remember a woman who was really eager,” Tom told me. “She kept bringing up how eager she was about revolution. And you know, on the one hand, people think it's good because we really need to change society, so it's a fine thing to talk about. On the other hand, she was trying to find people she could manipulate into [committing] a crime.”

Her excesses, her going on about revolution a bit too much, were shrugged off as the zeal of a recent convert, but they didn’t go without notice. These were experienced activists who knew that government surveillance of dissident groups had a long, ongoing history—but they were also aware that paranoia can also scare off the genuinely eager and slowly kill an organization. Being a little too green and a little too willing to help out doesn’t always mean someone’s a cop. And why worry if you have nothing to hide?

“We had discussions about her,” Tom said. “The mistake we made is that we believed, well, we're not breaking any laws, so what is she going to report? The raids shook us.”

"Karen Sullivan" along with another undercover FBI agent, who went by the name of "Daniela Cardenas"

Most of the activists targeted by the FBI wouldn't deny they are revolutionaries, but they aren’t naïve either. They are radical enough to not rule out that some future revolutionary period could entail a gun going off somewhere, but they aren’t about to stockpile weapons—they know America is not revolutionary Russia. As a result, the day-to-day activities of the self-described “Marxist-Leninists who believe that capitalism... is inherently a system of inequality, injustice, and war” are pretty mundane. After the 2008 Republican convention, they engaged in routine organizing efforts, attempting to mobilize support for health-care reform and opposition to police brutality. When George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin, they put together rallies protesting the verdict.

The FBI affidavit paints a far more sinister picture, with testimony from “Karen” alleging that members of the FRSO—teachers and trade unionists with long-standing ties to their communities; people whose homes she visited and whose newborn children she cradled in her arms—were actively plotting to take over government buildings in an armed revolution, all while aiding terrorist organizations in Colombia and Palestine. But after two years of undercover work, there was never any hard evidence for any of this; the affidavit is based almost entirely on the undercover agent’s testimony—testimony that, at worst, makes her former comrades sound like a couple of leftists after a few beers.

“Commies fighting for national liberation in other countries? We love those guys,” Jess Sundin, who was later subpoenaed, allegedly told the agent in 2009. Another activist allegedly talked about being a “big fan” of terrorist groups, though the affidavit concedes that statement came amid laughter and joking. Those off-the-cuff remarks, however, were presented as damning evidence that these community organizers—eight of whom are women with young children at home—were serious threats to “national security.”

To bolster its claim of “material support” for terrorism, the FBI affidavit makes much of the “solidarity trips” activists would sometimes take to Colombia and Palestine. The FRSO was said to have met with people who have ties to the FARC, a nominally Marxist guerrilla group now fueled by the drug trade that has been fighting the Colombian government for decades. In lieu of direct evidence, the affidavit quotes “Karen” as testifying that, based on her two years of undercover work, “I know… that there are multiple members of the FARC who do not publicly acknowledge their FARC membership and who are members of various unions.” At one point, the affidavit alleges that members of FRSO have provided aid to a pregnant woman who was a member of one such union and was touring the US. The agent also testified that her “experience and training as an FBI Special Agent” taught her that “criminals engaging in illicit activities often attempt to conceal their activities from others in order to avoid being caught.”

In the case of Palestine, the agent actually went on a solidarity trip herself, though she appears to have tipped off Israeli security before the FRSO members arrived, leading her group to be sent back home as they soon as the landed. The affidavit claims that activists provided aid to terrorists because they were on their way to deliver $2,000 to a group aiding the poor, embargoed people of Gaza—which would apparently indirectly help potential terrorists by helping to feed them. A list of questions an FBI agent left behind at a home that was raided suggests the source that money: a “Revolutionary Lemonade Stand.”

To say that all of this combined makes the activists terrorist sympathizers is a pretty drastic reach—in fact, the affidavit mentions that one of them told “Karen” that the “FRSO is not going to send anyone ‘military aid.’”

Unable to uncover hard evidence of any crime, in March 2010 the FBI agent tried to get the others to help her commit a crime. She told them she had been left $1,000 from her deceased father—who, she had claimed earlier, kicked her out of her home for being gay—and instructed that she send it to militants in Palestine. According to the affidavit, an unnamed activist promised to put her in touch with a man who could help her with a “monetary donation to people in his country,” offering to help because it's “such a cool story.” The affidavit doesn’t say if the money was ever sent.

Protests at the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minnesota, which is what the FBI was originally investigating. Photo via Flickr user Eric Hanson

So why haul all these people before a grand jury? If the case was so weak, it should have been dropped—and if there were anything to these allegations of terrorism and planning for armed revolution, activists wouldn’t be out on the streets giving interviews to me.

“Grand juries are a great vehicle for investigating political dissidents,” said Kade Crockford, a privacy expert with the ACLU of Massachusetts who has been following the case. “They are run by the government in a non-adversarial process which is secret from the public and immune from many of the constitutional protections afforded to criminal suspects in open courtrooms.”

People who testify before a grand jury aren’t allowed to bring a lawyer into the courtroom and don’t have the right to remain silent—simply refusing to talk can land someone in jail for a year and a half, which serves as a convenient way to jail people with radical politics without having to go through the hassle of convincing a jury to convict them of a crime. Anything you do say can and will be used against you, resulting in a perjury charge if nothing else. And the testimony of witnesses is kept secret, which can sow distrust among activists already prone to infighting.

“All these circumstances make grand juries the ideal vehicle for FBI fishing expeditions into lawful political activity that the government doesn’t like but, due to pesky constitutional issues, cannot outright criminalize,” Kade told me.

From the affidavit, it's evident the activists’ greatest crime was their anti-government rhetoric. Time and again, “Karen” kept asking her newfound friends when they would get around to the revolution here at home. Or were they all just talk? She goaded them and led them down conversational paths designed to produce incriminating quotes. She once asked Jess Sundin if she would be willing to throw down when the time came for “street fighting,” as if these peaceful activists desired nothing more than to make the streets run red with the blood of local small business owners and other patriots. To that, Jess allegedly replied, “If that was my assignment, yeah,” though the FBI admits she then “stated that she did not think a revolution would happen in the next ten years.”

Jess is also quoted as having “welcomed new FRSO members by stating 'we need new fighters,'” as if it were the first time anyone in American politics had used militant rhetoric (“We need fighters,” said President Barack Obama on the 2010 campaign trail).

“Do we support the overthrow of the US government?” another member of FSRO is said to have asked herself. “Oh, yeah.”

Pushed to discuss what she herself “would do during the revolution,” the activist allegedly responded, “Fucking fight and [kill] people.” But, she added, “We are not there yet.” The affidavit also notes that she didn’t even know how to use a firearm, though the fact that she knew someone who could “take her shooting” if she wanted—in Middle America, no less—is presented as if it were a shocking revelation.

Yet another activist supposedly told the informant that “she wanted to build a revolutionary movement in the United States,” a perfectly legal thing to do, “but did not think now was the time to pick up arms,” a perfectly legal thing to say.

Far from planning revolution by way of terrorism, the FBI affidavit itself suggests that, at worst, the FRSO was engaged in some fiery rhetoric—speech, in other words, which is something people are ostensibly allowed to engage in freely. No, you probably shouldn’t yell “fire!” in a crowded theater, but you can go ahead and yell all you want about hating the government and putting that theater under collective ownership after the revolution. At least, you’re supposed to be able to do that.

Another example of constitutionally protected free speech

Suppose the allegations are true, though. Suppose that when the FBI asked an activist, “What do you think of terrorist groups? Do you support them?” the activist had deep down inside wanted to respond with an “I love them” and a “Hell, yes.” If that were the case and the 23 activists targeted by the government were as nefarious as they were alleged to be four years ago, they managed to trick a lot of people, including some elected politicians, who stood by them when all 23 risked prison time by flatly refusing to participate in the grand jury process.

The Chicago Teamsters condemned the raids and demanded an immediate stop to the grand jury proceedings. So did the chapter of the SEIU representing workers in Illinois and Indiana. So did the New York Metro Area Postal Union. So did the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America. So did a Bay Area chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. And so on and so on. In all, more than three dozen labor groups spoke out against the harassment of their fellow trade unionists. Instead of sowing division among the left, the FBI had, for once, created solidarity.

Even the politicians joined in. Twelve of the 13 members of the Minneapolis City Council signed a letter in October 2011 stating that they were “deeply concerned about the chilling effects [the FBI’s] activities might have on completely nonviolent and legal activism.” They said they were worried about what it all meant for the “health of our democracy,” adding that the council had recognized the Anti-War Committee as “an important voice of nonviolence and political dissent.”

US Congressman Keith Ellison, the chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, also expressed concern about the raids in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, though he fell short of outright condemning the federal law enforcement harassment of his constituents, a step too far for a liberal Democrat in Congress.

That so many public figures were willing to stand up for a group of self-described socialists shows just how obvious it was to anyone familiar with the case that the raids and subpoenas didn't represent a good-faith effort to arrest terrorists, but rather a last-ditch attempt to salvage something from an investigation that had gone on for more than two years without digging up a damn bit of dirt.

The affidavit itself contains admissions that the quotes within are not based “on a final, verbatim transcript.” Indeed, “certain conversations were partially recorded to save on the battery life of the recording device,” leaving the FBI to patch together quotes. In at least one case, quotes were drawn entirely from memory because the undercover agent “was holding something in his/her hands and was unable to activate the recording device.”

The first questions from a document accidentally left behind by an FBI agent during a raid on an activist's house.

One thing I realized from reading the affidavit is that the activists being spied on by the government knew their radical politics could draw the government’s attention—and the government, bizarrely, tried to use that knowledge against them. Under the subhead “FRSO's Goals and Methods Used to Conceal Activities,” the affidavit makes note of a “UNITY DOCUMENT” that was presented to the Bureau’s infiltrator upon joining the group. It’s meant to illustrate that activists had something to hide, that you couldn’t believe their peaceful veener, but if you give it a more charitable reading it merely suggests that the activists were onto something:

No progressive struggle ever got anywhere in the United States without facing violent repression… Therefore… not only is repression inevitable; we are facing repression every day… If repression is a constant of ruling class policy, then defense against it must be a constant of revolutionary policy…

There is ample evidence that we have been and are either intermittently or constantly under one or another form of surveillance. In general, the smartest policy is simply to assume that we are under some kind of surveillance… Our main line of defense against repression will be secrecy; there is no realistic alternative.

They were right about the surveillance, of course. If anything, they weren’t paranoid enough—and certainly not as paranoid as those powerful people within the FBI who sought to imprison a group of mostly middle-aged peace activists because of some revolutionary rhetoric. The purpose of the investigation, of course, may just have been to discourage activism, but in this case it had the opposite effect: People were inspired by the activists’ refusal to testify against one another in the face of what even four years ago looked to be a clear instance of a law enforcement agency overreaching. But despite the city council's voicing dismay at the subpoenas, the 23 people targeted by the FBI could still be indicted and thrown into jail at any time, as the case against them technically remains open to this day.

As if to remind them of that, last year the Department of Homeland Security arrested Rasmea Odeh, a 66-year-old community organizer who served as associate director of the Arab American Action Network in Chicago. The alleged offense that got her arrested, in October 2013, was not stating on her immigration application that she had been incarcerated by the Israeli military in 1969—an oversight that, activists say, would have been forgiven were it a country other than Israel and Rasmea something other than an outspoken Palestinian American activist. The message: If people in power do not like what you are doing, they can find a reason to put you behind bars.

“How long do we have to be presumed guilty until proven innocent?” Tom asked when I last spoke to him. It’s a pretty good question, so I called up the US attorney’s office for the Northern District of Illinois, which is handling the case, to see if I could get an answer. Assistant US Attorney Randall Samborn got back to me the next day. “There have never been any charges filed and as a result of that we simply have no comment,” he said.

Charles Davis is a writer and producer in Los Angeles. His work has been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, the New Inquiry, and Salon.

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