And most of the activity they ended up charging people with was stuff the undercover agent desperately encouraging them to do - stuff they never would have done on their own.
Brendan Kiley at the Seattle alternative weekly, the Stranger, has done a long and scary report on the investigation that is worth reading in full.
Rick’s (un)American Cafe
It all centered around Rick Wilson, a nice guy who ran an after-hours club where bohemians would gather and talk about art and politics, drink, sometimes play a little cards.
Somehow the Seattle Police decided that it was a hotbed of eco-terrorism, and spent hundreds of thousands of man-hours investigating. In the end they arrested him for being the driver to a cocaine deal – a deal that was entirely set up by the police informant, and a deal that Rick had repeatedly told him he wanted nothing to do with. Again, something he NEVER would have done on his own.
Kiley describes the scene on the DVD of Rick’s post-arrest interrogation, as the officers try over and over to get him to give them information on terrorists, on drug dealers, on corrupt politicians – ANYTHING to make the investigation worth all that time and effort.
But there’s no “There” there…
And so it goes, for hours and hours on the grainy DVD, while Rick tries to figure out just how fucked he actually is. His interrogators, Rick later remembers, were unusually interested in environmental groups and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which totally bewildered him. Here he was getting hauled in for trying to cover a friend, and the police want to talk about radical politics?
Years earlier, Rick had been the singer for a protest band called ¡Tchkung!, which toured to places like El Salvador and had ties to radical, revolutionary causes with an emphasis on indigenous rights. In the ¡Tchkung! song “Solidarity,” Rick sings: “Wealth and justice, great disparity/Stand together, answer the call/What we need is solidarity/Injury to one is an injury to all… What part of ‘fuck you’ didn’t you understand?/There ain’t no compromise, it ain’t your land!”
Rick points out that even if the FBI had gotten to him eight years earlier, when he was closer to that world, he wouldn’t have been much help. ELF operates in a fundamentally nonhierarchical, cell-based way so that nobody can flip anybody else whom he or she hasn’t directly worked with on an action. A person doesn’t join ELF with any kind of process or ceremony. A person commits an action (burning down a McMansion, spray-painting slogans on Weyerhaeuser headquarters, whatever) and then attributes that action to ELF (via a letter or graffiti), and boom—it’s an ELF action. But the FBI, despite years of experience, tries to investigate, infiltrate, and bring down the group like it’s an old-time mob.
“I wish I could say I was surprised,” says Seattle attorney Amanda Lee when I explain this years-long investigation and all the futile effort that went into it. Lee is familiar with this kind of case, having argued several entrapment and radical- environmentalist cases during her career, representing defendants from Operation Backfire (a notorious FBI investigation against people associated with ELF by putting the screws to a guy facing narcotics charges) and a detainee at Guantánamo Bay accused of being involved with the 9/11 hijacking. But, she says, the FBI keeps trying to hammer at ELF through whatever tangential, specious means it can, following weak leads that cost it—and taxpayers—much time and expense.
“FBI domestic terrorism investigations,” she says, “are frequently out of proportion to the danger of the crime involved.”
In the end, they charged a few guys with illegal gambling for their penny-ante card games, and nailed Rick, who was unlucky enough to have been talked into buying a few guns to send to Mexico’s Zapatista rebels years ago.
Not getting the real job done
And Kiley does a good job of linking this to the big picture.
Former Chicago Tribune reporter Will Potter, author of Green Is the New Red (just published by City Lights), says that after years of looking into these kinds of cases, he’s never figured out exactly why the FBI is doing this: “The best explanation I ever heard was from a former FBI agent. She said: ‘In the 1980s, it was drugs; in the ’90s, it was gangs; and post-9/11, the institutional focus of law enforcement is terrorism.’”
…”This has happened quite a bit,” Potter says. “I don’t mean to be too glib, but if it can’t find people committing so-called ecoterrorism, the FBI seems willing to create ecoterrorism and then arrest people for it…
“At the very top of my list is the Eric McDavid case out of California,” Potter says. After an FBI investigation of at least three years (from 2004 to 2007), during which McDavid developed a romantic attachment to “Anna,” the alter ego of an FBI agent, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for “conspiring to damage or destroy property by fire and an explosive.” Potter describes the sentence as “mind-bogglingly insane.”
“The guy didn’t do anything,” he says. “At the worst, he hung around with a group of people who talked tough. In court, Anna actually complained that the group spent too much time hanging around and smoking pot.” All the while, Anna was on the FBI payroll and was “supplying the group with bomb-making materials and supplies and traveling around on the FBI’s dime.”
Protecting Americans from actual terrorists
And it’s not just lefty journalists and dirty hippies who have been objecting. It’s the Department of Justice, too.
The DOJ’s 95-page audit report from 2003 opens and closes with the inspector general basically saying that the FBI has been doing a crappy job of protecting American citizens from terrorism because it’s not good at sharing information with other agencies, and it’s been too busy busting the likes of vegans, hippies, artists, anarchists, and other low-risk dissident American subcultures.
From page 63 of the DOJ report: “Frequently, the information being shared on terrorism could be described as background; often the subject of the FBI’s communications is not the high risk of radical Islamic fundamentalist terrorism but social protests or the criminal activities of environmental or animal activists.”
On the 11th page of the report’s introduction, the DOJ suggests that the FBI concentrate on “actionable information on the high risk of international terrorism and any domestic terrorist activities aimed at creating mass casualties or destroying critical infrastructure, rather than information on social protests and domestic radicals’ criminal activities.”
In other words, the DOJ is telling the FBI to stop wasting its time with the vegans, the hippies, and the anarchists. They’re fine—people are allowed to be weird in America. Those people aren’t a threat, anyway. The FBI should spend its time looking for murder- minded international terrorists instead.
(Shocking gambling picture by Andy Pixel, from The Stranger)