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by Peter Moskos

September 20, 2010

A Slow Work Day at the FBI

The FBI has slow work days? I kind of hoped they were pretty busy. But I guess we all have slow work days. But when I have a slow work day I like to listen to a Cubs game or write blog posts or play pinball.

But when the FBI has a slow work day... well the the Justice Department's inspector general has released a pretty damning report about FBI work on domestic terrorist organizations. Specifically a 2002 rally in Pittsburgh sponsored by a nonviolent anti-war group was "An ill-conceived project on a slow work day."

Did it really start with two agents, feet up in the office?

"What do you want to do today, Marty?"

"I don't care. What do you want to do?"

[Kudos to anybody that can tell me where that line is from. I don't know and get this: can't find it on google! It's probably a movie from the 1950s as I learned it from my dad. Update: I figured it out. It's from the movie Marty. Google wins again.]

"We could keep an eye out on the war-protesters. They're probably up to no good."

The New York Times reports:
The IG also concluded that the factual basis for opening some investigations was factually weak and that in several instances there was little indication of any possible federal crime, as opposed to state crimes.
Regarding the Pittsburgh rally, controversy erupted in 2006 over whether the FBI had spied on protesters at the event several years earlier because of their anti-war views.

At the time, the FBI issued a news release saying the surveillance had been based on an ongoing investigation.

FBI Director Robert Mueller told a Senate hearing that the bureau had been trying to identify a particular individual believed to be in attendance.
Turns out that was not true.

Why does this matter? Well the Times points out that, "Domestic terrorism classification has far-reaching impact because people who are subjects of such investigations are normally placed on watchlists and their travels and interactions with law enforcement may be tracked."

My issue is more primal. Every time I hear that anti-war protesters and pacifists are considered a national-security American threat, I reach for my gun. Especially given the FBI's has a long and shameful track record of investigating "subversives." Certainly that was the case under J Edgar Hoover. But we've moved on, haven't we?

And I also have a much more basic complaint. The FBI, part of the Executive Branch, is not a police force (no matter how much they act like one on TV). The line between local police and federal law enforcement can at times seem like very fine line indeed. But it's an important distinction to keep. For starters it's a constitutional issue. But it's also important because local police can be held accountable to local (and state and federal) politicians. And because law enforcement is supposed to be work for us and not become a domestic spying organization.

Truthfully, I don't mind the FBI investigating subversives. What I mind how this category is defined. Why do liberals and pacifist seem to get a lot of attention? I mean, you may not agree with them, but pacifists are, well, pacifist. And it just so happens that these anti-war folk (myself included, though I'm not much of a protester) happened to have been right. Maybe the FBI should spend more time investigating those who want to get us into these wars.

[Since I've been around, off the top of my head I can think of US troops occupying, bombing, or invading Kuwait, Iraq, Panama, Grenada, Serbia, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Lebanon (I'm sure I'm forgetting one or two). Did any good come from any of these? Maybe. But it's damn hard to make an argument that good has come from all of these collectively.]

Does that make me suspicious? Maybe. I guess it makes me a liberal. And I suppose the FBI, like most law enforcement, is basically conservative and suspicious of liberals.

[I just thought of this one: You know you're a liberal when... the thought of Michael Moore as president scares you less than Sarah Palin.]


Anonymous said...

Peter - check out my blog on the latest new York Times story regarding NYPD Intel division. It's scary when the press no longer investigates. www.seven-shots.com (blog). best jch

Anonymous said...

Dangerous area, discussing politics on a blog. (Something about gold medals and the Special Olympics comes to mind.) Guess my big question is how far did the feds go with their "investigation"? Was it just a once over or were there surveillance warrants obtained and a full work up done? It's worth noting that it's not just the agents but their entire chain of command that should be held accountable. Nobody operates in a vacuum.

As for liberals and pacifists, I'd offer that the non-liberal/non-pacifists have gotten a pretty big share of the fed's attention. Ruby Ridge and Waco spawned Oklahoma City, which resulted in just about any group that professed fealty to the 2nd Amendment or a distrust of the federal govt. getting a lot of unwanted attention. Up until 9/10/01 the Bureau stated the #1 threat to domestic security were right wing separatists and nationalist groups. (BTW, if you haven't already you should read some of the on-scene accounts of Ruby Ridge & Waco. THAT will make you reach for your gun.)

As you hit upon, accountability seems to be a big factor. ATF wasn't held to proper account after Ruby Ridge, which spawned Waco. There's got to be a way to build more transparency into their operations, or at least better post-incident/operational review.

Sgt. T

Bob G. said...

Good post...VERY very good.

Stay safe.

Johnny Law said...

Well you have to admit that some of the anti-war crowd runs with the anti-globalization loons that destroyed Seattle during the WTO. That same group goes from event to event planning ways to disrupt things and cause havoc.

I went undercover into a group that was planning a protest in my city and sat in on many meetings discussing ways to shut the city down. Some folks were real protesters who just wanted their voices heard. Others were radical folks who wanted to cause property damage and disrupt communication/transportation.

I can't really blame the FBI for wanting to keep an eye on these groups.

PCM said...

Johnny Law, indeed there sometimes is good reason to be on top of the groups. WTO meetings now I think are a given. But that's different than a straight-up anti-war rally.

And your talking about action based on investigation and evidence. I would expect police and FBI to do something.

It seems here there was no evidence, just the default position that liberals (and liberal groups) must be up to no good. And it went on for years.

PCM said...

If they're looking for something to do during "slow work days," here's something the FBI could be looking at: "Extremist websites skyrocketing, says Interpol"


suz said...

Geez! Thanks for giving me a case of the willies! The thought of Michael Moore as president DOES scare me less than Sarah Palin! (But not by much, and only because he's far better informed.) Great post, and very timely. Where have all the real reporters gone? Keeping tabs on powerful government agencies is not easy, but it can be done. "News" has become far too commercial; the advertisers don't want to pay for all that "boring" investigative journalism. Sexy headlines and inflammatory commentary are where the money is, and the result is a frighteningly uninformed public. This is our own safety and freedom we're dismissing. Public scrutiny is the best way to keep the powerful in line, and that opinion isn't coming from a paranoid conspiracy theorist. I want the news media to stop with all the yapping, and tell us what we really need to know. Stunts like the one you described simply SHOULD NOT be buried!

Oh dear! Now I'm ranting! I'll just shut up and go sit in the corner.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the real subversives these days tend to be in extremist right wing orgs planning actual acts of terrorism... of course, there are probably many more extremist right wing orgs shooting the shit about rising up against the government but with no intentions of actually doing anything. There are probably a few left-wing loons left but there are probably more politically-motivated murderers from the 70's running free (never caught) than left wing nuts planning new crimes. Er, except for ELF. So there's a criminal organization for ya. Any others? Crickets?