In an exhaustive recent report, the Memphis Commercial Appeal detailed Withers's undercover activities, provoking a pained and complex response from the many who knew him and were involved in the civil rights movement. His family simply refuses to believe that the paper's report could be accurate. On the other hand, Andrew Young, with King during those last moments, accepts Withers's career as an informant, saying it just doesn't bother him. Civil rights leaders, including King, viewed Withers as crucial to the movement's struggle to portray itself accurately in Jet, Ebony, and other black journals. In that Withers was successful—and the rest, Young suggests, doesn't matter. Besides, he told the Commercial Appeal, they had nothing to hide. "I don't think Dr. King would have minded him making a little money on the side."
Activist and comedian Dick Gregory, hearing Young's comments, turned on his old comrade. "We are talking about a guy hired by the FBI to destroy us and the fact that Andy could say that means there must be a deep hatred down inside of him," he said. "If he feels that way about King only God knows what he feels about the rest of us."
This is the way it is with informers, so useful to reckless law enforcement authorities and employed by the tens of thousands as the secret shock troops of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Surveillance has multiple uses, not the least of which is to sow mistrust, which in turn eats at the cohesion of families, social and political movements, and ultimately the fabric of community itself.
D'Army Bailey, a former Memphis judge and target of FBI surveillance in the 1960s, told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that the use of informers in everyday life ruptured fundamental civic bonds, fomenting deep suspicion and mistrust. "It's something you would expect in the most ruthless totalitarian regimes. Once that trust is shattered that doesn't go away."
Earl Caldwell, a former New York Times reporter and now a professor of journalism at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University, pointed out that the black community in the South in the 1960s granted a special trust to black journalists. Indeed, some of those journalists took out an ad in black newspapers in February 1970 pledging not to spy or inform or betray that trust.
"If all that we've been told through these documents that have been released, if that's true, then it puts a... very, very, very heavy, heavy mark not just on [Withers] and his work but on the trust that the black journalists made many years ago with the black community," Caldwell said.
Keeping Tabs on Americans for Fun and Profit
That was then, this is now. The Withers story is, of course, ancient history, shocking to many, yes, even though it is well known that FBI and police informers permeated the movement in general and King's circle in particular, and illegal wiretaps and bugs snared even the most private conversations of civil rights leaders. But few who thought or wrote about the Withers news found it an especially relevant tale for our present moment. How wrong they were.
If, amid anti-communist hysterias and social upheaval decades ago, the US government employed armies of informers and other forms of often illegal surveillance, government and law enforcement agencies today are actually casting a far broader surveillance net in the name of security in a relentless effort to watch and hear everything—and to far less attention or concern than in the 1960s.
In fact, a controversy in Pennsylvania has just erupted over secret state surveillance of legitimate political groups engaged in meetings, protests, and debates involving subjects of public importance—natural gas drilling, abortion, military policy, animal mistreatment, gay rights. Such controversies over domestic political spying have surfaced remarkably regularly since September 11, 2001—police and FBI informers in mosques, Defense Department surveillance of antiwar groups and even gay organizations, National Security Agency illegal wiretapping, and surveillance of groups planning protests for the political conventions of the major parties. Revelations of such activities have become almost white noise. All were covered in the media, but cumulatively it's as though none of them ever happened.
The Pennsylvania surveillance case, which is just the latest of these glimpses into the secret surveillance world of our ever more powerful national security state, does not directly involve informers (as far as we know). It marks a different point on what FBI Director Robert Mueller has referred to as the "continuum"—the whole environment of daily life, really, which in the post-9/11 world has been appropriated by law enforcement officials in the name of "terrorism prevention."
"There is a continuum between those who would express dissent and those who would do a terrorist act," Mueller said ominously in a 2002 speech. "Somewhere along that continuum we have to begin to investigate. If we do not, we are not doing our job. It is difficult for us to find a path between the two extremes."
What does that mean? Just last week, FBI agents raided half a dozen homes of anti-war activists in Minneapolis and Chicago, carting away papers, computers, clothing, and other personal effects, all in the name of investigating "material support of terrorism." The activists, their supporters, and their attorneys have a different view: they see the raids as designed to intimidate and disrupt legitimate political dissent—points on "the continuum." It is a virtual certainty that evidence of intrusive surveillance will surface as these cases mature.
In Pennsylvania the continuum has meant, most recently, that the state Office of Homeland Security contracted with a small outfit, the Institute of Terrorism Response and Research, run by a couple of ex-cops, one from York, Pennsylvania, the other raised in Philadelphia and a veteran of Israeli law enforcement. For the past year, the institute has been providing secret intelligence reports via the state Homeland Security Office to Pennsylvania police departments and private companies in order, the reports say, to "support public and private sector, critical infrastructure protection initiatives and strategies."
Many of these reports focused on groups opposed to Marcellus Shale drilling, which you may not have known was a breeding ground for terrorism. In fact, you may not even know what it is. But particularly in Pennsylvania and New York, Marcellus Shale means big bucks. The shale is part of a 600-mile-long geological formation containing a huge reservoir of natural gas. Energy companies are seeking to exploit that formation in ways that have raised serious and widespread environmental concerns. Ed Rendell, governor of Pennsylvania, facing severe budget problems, wants to impose a tax on the eager drillers. With Marcellus Shale, there's something for everybody—except for environmentalists concerned about the impact of drilling on the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the Delaware River basin.
Opposition from various environmental groups, then, has threatened to spoil the party. What a surprise to find many of those groups mentioned in one "counterterrorism" report after another. For instance, a report on an "anti-gas" training session in Ithaca, New York, noted that the group conducting the training (part of a radical environmental network) was nonviolent, but should be considered dangerous anyway.
"Training provided by the Ruckus Group does not include violent tactics such as the use of IEDs [roadside bombs] or small arms," a 2009 institute report assured its no-doubt-relieved readers. "The Ruckus Group does, however, provide expertise in planning and conducting demonstrations and campaigns that can close down a facility and embarrass a company." To spell it out: this counterterrorist monitoring institute was providing public-relations alerts for private energy companies at tax-payer expense.
For nearly a decade, 9/11 has been used to justify this kind of "intelligence" provided to corporate and private interests. Such information may have nothing to do with terrorism, but it serves nicely to illustrate how the protection of private profit has trumped concern for real public security. What was missed as institute "analysts" pondered potential Ruckus Group embarrassments to energy companies?
Rendell, who claimed shock and embarrassment when the reports became public this month, has now cancelled the institute's $103,000 state contract. He also insisted that he knew nothing about the contract, and reaffirmed the right of peaceful protest in the United States.
Not so fast. My colleague at the Philadelphia Inquirer Dan Rubin first reported the institute's questionable focus on July 19th. At that time, the state director of homeland security, James Powers, defended the institute's work, citing intelligence warnings about protests at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh last year. "Powers said that Institute analysts posed in chat rooms as sympathizers of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group, which opposed the summit, and learned where the group would be mobilizing," Rubin wrote. '"We got the information to the Pittsburgh police,' he said, 'and they were able to cut them off at the pass."'
How could Rendell not know about this? Among the many unanswered questions to date: Who received these reports and for what purpose? The state has declined so far to disclose a list of the recipients. But in an email that Powers inadvertently sent to an anti-drilling group, he all but admits that the intelligence operation, at least in part, served corporate drilling interests.
"We want to continue providing this [intelligence] support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against those same companies," Powers wrote. (He resigned at the beginning of October amid on-going criticism over the institute's reports.)
The Institute of Terrorism Response and Research was not alone in monitoring the Pittsburgh G-20 summit, of course. The Pennsylvania State Police also kept tabs on those potential demonstrators, funneling information gathered into the state "fusion center," its surveillance and intelligence data hub.
Fusion centers are largely products of the war on terror, a result of the massive waves of federal "security" counterterrorism funding that flowed nationwide in the wake of 9/11. More than 70 such centers now exist around the country, serving to gather "intelligence" from private and law-enforcement sources and state and federal agencies. This information is stored for future use as well as distributed to local police, state police, private corporations, and various public agencies.
In the case of the Pittsburgh G-20 summit surveillance, Pennsylvania's fusion center passed its information on protests and protest groups along to other local and federal law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, and the US military. (An instance of this probably resulted in the arrest of Elliott Madison, a self-described anarchist who was supposedly distributing information to demonstrators via Twitter, an activity applauded by US authorities when utilized by Iranian dissidents, but apparently frowned upon when employed stateside.)
The specter of bombs, vandalism, disruption, violence, and anarchy infused these reports and hundreds of arrests were made during largely peaceful protests. Civil rights suits have, not surprisingly, followed in the aftermath of the summit.
Names, Names, and More Names
Here is the continuum at work. A group is singled out by an intelligence report—a Quaker "cell" opposed to the wars in the Middle East, for instance, or opponents of Marcellus Shale drilling, or those who disagree with G-20 policies. Once the group is identified, federal agencies and state and local police move to insert informers in it and/or aggressively investigate it. Such surveillance, whether done by informers or by agents picking through trash bags, generates names. Names go into databases and are networked nationwide. Databases grow.
Michael Perelman, one of the principals in the Institute of Terrorism Response and Research, defended his group's work by arguing that even peaceful protests have security implications and that the institute did not track individuals. This is disingenuous. The institute and the state fusion center, officially known as the Pennsylvania Criminal Intelligence Center, may work in parallel worlds, but their methods mirror each other. The state fusion center, run by the state police, provides access to law enforcement nationwide. Names of groups and members of groups are its stock in trade, the meat of all surveillance. In the same way, the state Homeland Security Office distributed the institute's reports to hundreds of agencies and private companies.
The tracking of legitimate political groups and people engaged in lawful political activity is, of course, a fundamental corruption of American democracy. Consider what happened in Oakland at the onset of the Iraq war. A peaceful protest at the Oakland port was met by police who opened fire on fleeing demonstrators and bystanders alike, shooting wooden bullets and tear gas canisters. In my book, Mohamed's Ghosts, I report that police had been alerted to potential violence by the California Anti-Terrorism Training Center, a state fusion center tracking political groups—exactly the same thing done by the Institute of Terrorism Response and Research. About 60 people were injured, including 11 longshoremen, and 25 protestors were arrested. This event was justified by the fusion center's spokesman who claimed that a protest of a war waged against "international terrorism" is itself "a terrorist act."
But the story didn't end there. A month after the initial 2003 protest, demonstrators, led by Direct Action to Stop the War among other groups, held another Oakland protest to denounce the earlier police violence. Leaders of that protest, it turned out, were undercover Oakland police operatives who directed the protest's planning. Deputy Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan shrugged it all off, saying it was important for his department "to gather the information and maybe even direct [protestors] to do something that we wanted them to do."
The identification of dissident political groups, the gathering of names, the manipulation of actual acts—these are the overt purposes of surveillance and informing. In reality, the goal of all this furtive, fervent activity is not to dismantle terrorist networks but to disrupt legitimate civic and political activity—and especially, in the post-9/11 world, to identify and infiltrate US Muslim and Middle Eastern congregations, civic groups, neighborhoods, and activist organizations.
Toward that end, the FBI has moved to beef up its ranks of informers. In its 2008 budget, the bureau sought more than $13 million simply to vet and track more than 15,000 working informants, and noted that new informants are signing up every day. Information provided by those informants and by other increasingly ubiquitous and sophisticated surveillance techniques is now funneled to fusion centers—making it all just a mouse-click away from public and private agencies nationwide.
In the 1960s, when Ernest Withers was an informant, such computer-driven intelligence storage and distribution was only a gleam in J. Edgar Hoover's eye. Nevertheless, in Memphis, where Withers did the bulk of his work, information he passed along helped dismantle the Invaders, a radical group that saw 34 members arrested. Withers also gave government handlers photographs of religious leaders, political activists, and labor organizers, shadow portraits for shadow profiles in the FBI's burgeoning files. These were used by law enforcement authorities in efforts to control the 1968 sanitation workers' strike that brought Martin Luther King to Memphis.
Withers's image of striking Memphis sanitation workers holding aloft an unbroken sea of signs reading "I Am A Man" remains as vivid today as it was half a century ago. That a photographer who documented the segregated South so powerfully labored as a police informer may seem an unnerving contradiction. But Ronald Reagan also served as an FBI informer. So did the ACLU's famed First Amendment lawyer, Morris Ernst. Gerald Ford, a member of the Warren Commission, funneled information about the Kennedy assassination directly to J. Edgar Hoover as well.
Informers have multiple, often conflicting motives, and Withers, who died in 2007, is not around to explain or defend himself. The report on his activities during the civil rights movement, his betrayals of the movement's most prominent leaders, and his hand in destroying local activist groups, however, is a powerful reminder of the long history of political surveillance in this country and the corruptions and animus it breeds. Whether it is the FBI's use of informers within the civil rights movement or the state of Pennsylvania's monitoring of legitimate dissent in the post-9/11 world, the ultimate victim of such activity is American civil society itself.
The tainting of character, the undermining of basic trust, the disruption of democratic politics—these are the great achievements of state surveillance. Thanks to 9/11 and truckloads of homeland security money, the stain of those achievements is now flowing as swiftly and freely as streams of data on a vast fiber optic network.
Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His most recent book is Mohamed's Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland.
[Note on sources: Analysis of the use of surveillance and fusion centers at G-20 summits in Pittsburgh and elsewhere may be found in PDF file format here. Alarmist police reports disseminated on G-20 threats in Pittsburgh can be found in PDF file format here. The 2008 FBI budget document can be seen in PDF file format here. The Justice Department's Inspector General has just issued a report examining the propriety of FBI investigation and surveillance of domestic political activity; the report, well worth reading, can be found, also in PDF file format, here.]