to Beat Ashcroft's FBI at its Own Game
May 4, 2002
By Jackson Thoreau
"Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation
must begin by subduing the freeness of speech." - Ben
The Orwellian Patriot Act is in full swing, and it's not
pretty. There's the eerie knock on your door, then government
agents snoop through your home, your computer, your underwear,
anything to fabricate evidence to accuse you of treason. And
it's only going to get worse, as the U.S. Citizen Corps -
the Spy on Your Neighbors program - expands, and you have
to worry about whether your mail carrier or your crime watch
group will report you to the authorities for receiving copies
of Mother Jones or The Nation.
While this situation is alarming, to say the least, it's
not without historical precedent. And if we study what the
real American patriots - not those Bush-Cheney-Ashcroft thieves
and hypocrites - have done to combat such intimidation and
suppression, we can beat these suckers at their own game.
African-Americans have long faced the prospect of government
agents and the Ku Klux Klan invading their homes to terrorize
and kill them in this country. The old colonies enacted laws
to publicly and cruelly dismember blacks who fought back starting
in the 17th century. But they kept fighting, and many Anglos
like John Brown joined their cause.
Even when African-Americans were freed from formal slavery
in the 1860s, the government's jackboots remained upon them.
The FBI harassed key leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.,
tapping his phone, blackmailing him, sending him a fake letter
urging him to commit suicide. Many believe certain government
officials were involved in a plot to assassinate King that
succeeded in 1968. Partly in response to riots after King's
murder, Congress passed the Orwellian Civil Rights Act in
1968 that strengthened police powers against civil rights
organizers. The first to be prosecuted under this act was
a young black leader, H. Rap Brown, after he issued a pointed
speech in Maryland, according to historian Howard Zinn, author
of A People's History of the United States.
The FBI used informants inside the Black Panthers to murder
leaders like Fred Hampton, who was killed in 1969 by agents
as he lay in bed inside his Chicago apartment that they riddled
with as many as 200 rounds. The FBI's COINTELPRO program took
almost 300 such actions against African-American groups from
1956 through 1971, according to Zinn. Still, they kept fighting
back, through violent and non-violent means.
Jeffersonian Republicans - who bear little resemblance to
the current bunch of Reps - squared off against official suppression
in the late 1790s. Federalists like Adams and Hamilton wanted
the Jeffersonians silenced - and they wanted no more Shays
Rebellions, the armed 1786 farmers' revolt led by Daniel Shays
against the wealthy merchants and bankers who stole their
farms - so they passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.
Government agents arrested numerous Jeffersonians, including
journalists like the grandson of Ben Franklin, convicted them
for supposed treason, and shut down their printing presses.
Jeffersonians fought back by organizing angry street protests
and political campaigns that rode Jefferson to the White House
in 1800. Jefferson pardoned those convicted under the acts,
and Congress repealed them in 1802.
Socialists, Communists, labor activists, and those accused
of the above have also long heard that knock of suppression
at their doors. Many leaders of the Industrial Workers of
the World, such as Joe Hill, were harassed and even killed
in the early 1900s. The Palmer Raids of 1920 rounded up and
deported thousands of immigrants suspected of being Socialists.
From 1947, when former President Harry Truman issued an executive
order to crack down on "disloyal" citizens suspected of being
Communists, until 1952, some 6.6 million people were monitored
by government agents, according to Zinn. As many as 500 government
employees lost their jobs during this time.
Former Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts later in the 1950s
ruined the lives of many more Americans whose only "crime"
was that they didn't think the way the government wanted.
The Internal Security Act of this time set up concentration
camps for suspected Communists who were denied their constitutional
rights. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were even executed in 1953
after the government employed questionable methods and could
have doctored evidence in their trial as accused spies. A
son of the Rosenbergs, Robert Meeropol, believes to this day
that his parents were framed and unjustly executed. He started
the Rosenberg Fund for Children; more information can be obtained
In A Citizen's Dissent, attorney and author Mark Lane
wrote of the official suppression he encountered while researching
the lies behind the Warren Report, the government's version
of who killed John F. Kennedy in 1963. Lane described an incident
in which FBI agents accosted him outside his New York residence,
and he shook them off by simply refusing their request to
search his home, and demanding that they leave and send him
a letter detailing exactly what they were seeking. Lane even
pushed one agent who stood in his way slightly to walk past
him. Lane also wrote about being on a government "watch list"
as he departed an airplane.
In what should come as no shock, Lane wrote that people in
Europe in the mid-1960s were more skeptical about the Warren
Report than those in the U.S. That's a similar situation today,
in that Europeans are generally more skeptical towards the
"War on Terrorism" than Americans. At least Kennedy assassination
researchers have a Warren Report to sort through the official
lies; people like U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., who ask
for a Congressional investigation of what occurred on Sept.
11 are accused of treason.
In the 1970s and 1980s, activists of various stripes were
under the gun. In Texas, a group that harbored Central American
refugees, which included a priest and nuns, was infiltrated
by government agents. I was among the peace, justice, and
environmental activists during that time who were monitored
by government agents. I simply refused to let such repression
stop what I was doing; rather the suppression spurred me on
to keep fighting, perhaps longer than I might have otherwise.
That's what a lot of right-wing government officials don't
understand; their Gestapo tactics only make their opponents
In the past few months, as more than 150 college campuses
across the country have hosted rallies protesting Bush policies,
there have been numerous instances of FBI and Secret Service
agents questioning students and others who are critical of
the Patriot Act and other administration policies. Among those
receiving such visits were students at Chicago's Northwestern
University and North Carolina's Durham Tech, according to
a recent article in the Toronto Star. Barry Reingold, a 60-year-old
retired telephone company worker in San Francisco, was visited
by FBI agents simply for voicing criticism of the "War on
Terrorism" at his local private health club, the Star reported.
FBI and Secret Service agents even visited the Houston Art
Car Museum because it showed an educational exhibit about
the government's "secret wars." The exhibit began before Sept.
The FBI also has a no-fly list of people who can be kept
off airplanes for speaking out against administration policies.
A group from Wisconsin missed some of the recent weekend protests
in Washington, D.C., around Earth Day after being detained
by officials, according to The Progressive. Among those members
of the Peace Action Milwaukee group were a priest and a nun.
But such tactics did not stop an estimated crowd of 75,000
from protesting Bush policies on Earth Day in Washington,
believed to be the largest anti-war demonstration in the nation's
capital since the Persian Gulf War.
The suppression campaign has extended beyond the FBI. Several
journalists and at least one college professor have been fired
for writing columns, or stating views, critical of the war
effort. Right-wingers like Bill Bennett and Lynne Cheney are
pressuring college professors and others into silence through
intimidating tactics that include mailings to alumni of universities
where professors take unpopular stands to urge they not donate
to that school. At the University of Texas at Austin - considered
to be progressive for a Texas college - university president
Larry Faulkner publicly called professor Robert Jensen a "fool"
for opposing the U.S. terrorism response. If Jensen did not
have tenure, no doubt he would be fired.
Some professors and students are even being used by the CIA,
FBI, and other government officials to further their suppressive
campaigns around the world. That practice has occurred for
a long time; I interviewed a Texas college professor in 1981
who a source said worked for the CIA. He denied such an affiliation.
However, a few years later, the professor met a mysterious
death; he was run over by a train early one morning in the
middle of nowhere.
Expect even more professors, postal workers, phone company
workers, neighborhood crime-watch members, and others to be
used as government spies through the Citizen Corps program,
which is organized under the USA Freedom Corps. Even professional
huckster Ed McMahon has been signed to promote this undemocratic
campaign, which poses as a community volunteer effort against
terrorism. More information on this program can be viewed
In the 1990s, conservatives could say whatever the hell they
wanted about the Clinton administration without being visited
by the FBI. They could oppose Clinton's programs to the point
of working to impeach him for lying about a private extramarital
affair that was none of the American people's business in
the first place, without being accused of aiding U.S. enemies
or terrorists or committing treason. You can argue that the
difference lies in what happened on Sept. 11, but that still
doesn't mean we have to sacrifice our basic rights for which
Americans before us have fought and died.
OK, you may be saying, many Americans who stood up for what
they thought was right in the past have faced various forms
of government and corporate suppression. And they dealt with
the repression in various ways, from ignoring it to non-violent
and violent responses. So how does that help our present situation
against the Bush forces?
Much of the intimidation these days seems to be coming from
Ashcroft's FBI. The FBI is an agency I'm well acquainted with,
as my father worked there for 25 years, including seven years
as an agent. While he has not talked much about what exactly
he did there, saying he swore to keep silent about certain
aspects when he left, I have learned a few things about FBI
agents' jobs and how they operate. I used some of this knowledge
to my benefit in dealing with government officials and agents
as a peace-justice-environmental activist in the 1980s. And
it's obviously time to bring back the tactics.
The following are some tips on how to deal with FBI agents
if they knock on your door:
* First off, don't be intimidated. Understand that the agent
at your door is a person who is just doing his or her job
and probably doesn't really want to be at your doorstep. Some
agents like intimidating people, especially those they don't
agree with politically. But a lot of them are uneasy - and
even feel guilty - about barging into someone's home just
because that person disagrees with the current administration's
policies. They'd rather be out chasing down the real bad guys.
So, remain calm and don't yell or freak out - they could use
that to claim you tried to assault them. In the 1980s, I was
on a long project in which we were monitored by government
agents. We would act friendly towards them and generally treat
them like humans. This disarmed them from the beginning, and
most didn't hang around long.
* Calmly ask to see the agents' badges and write down the
numbers. Call the police or local FBI office to verify the
numbers. If the agents' credentials check out, you do not
have to let them in unless they have a search warrant. If
they want to come in, ask for their search warrant. Write
down the judge's name who signed it and call his or her office
to verify the warrant.
* If the search warrant checks out, you will have to let
them inside if they ask to enter. But you should grab a video
or audio recorder and record everything. If they threaten
to confiscate your recorder, you should calmly say you have
the right to do this in your own home because you want to
protect yourself, and you want evidence for a legal complaint
or case you might file in the near future with the Justice
Department, American Civil Liberties Union, and other places.
If they take the recorder, you should firmly tell them you
will be filing a complaint with their superiors, and even
contacting your Congress representatives and the media about
that illegal pilfering of your property. And you should follow
through with making such complaints and contacts.
* Make sure you follow the agents and carefully note what
they are looking through and if they take anything. You should
not allow them to take your computer hard drive. If they insist
they have the right to take it, tell them you do not think
that is legal with just a search warrant; they will have to
prove they need the hard drive to make a case. Ask to call
an attorney and have him or her present, if the agents keep
insisting they need your computer. As a last resort, offer
to let them look through your hard drive at home, if they
will not confiscate it. Once the computer is off your premises,
you do not know what they will do with it - it might come
back missing numerous files and programs or have a built-in
sensor program that allows them to monitor anything you type
into the machine.
* As a regular precaution, delete any files you do not really
need from your hard drive. Save any files you really want
on a disk or CD and find a secure hiding place. Go into your
windows folder and delete temporary Internet files so they
cannot easily see what pages you have seen. Be sure to delete
the files from your recycling bin. A trained computer technician
can still locate what Web pages you have viewed, but that
takes more time, money, and trouble if you make the initial
deletion. If you make things hard on the government, it's
possible the officials will back off and move on to someone
who is easier to monitor.
* If the government builds a case against you, make sure
you have a competent attorney. If you cannot afford one, contact
the ACLU, or some public legal organization such as at a local
university or Legal Aid. And go public. Contact the media,
politicians, Internet sites, organizations, and anyone else
you think can help you. Operating in the light of public opinion
is one of the best forms of protection you can have.
* I support doing everything you can legally and non-violently
to combat Ashcroft and the others in the Bush administration
- and that means filing lawsuits and complaints, and attending
protests. I understand why some use violence and illegal means
in response to governmental crackdowns. If I had been an African-American
slave being brutalized in the 19th century, I probably would
have resorted to violence. If I had lived in Boston in 1770,
I probably would have participated in the Boston Tea Party,
which was a protest that employed illegal, though justifiable
under the circumstances, means - breaking into British ships
and destroying some of their contents. But I cannot recommend
such tactics in this current campaign. Perhaps that will change
in the future, but I believe we should proceed with legal,
non-violent responses currently.
It's a difficult environment we are entering, one that will
take cunning, courage, and persistence to survive intact.
But if we approach this calmly and rationally and are armed
with the proper knowledge, we can prevail. We have beaten
these suckers in the past, and we can do it again.
Jackson Thoreau is co-author of We Will Not Get Over
It: Restoring a Legitimate White House. The 110,000-word
electronic book can be downloaded at here,
Thoreau can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.