What the Occupy Wall Street Crackdown Can Teach Us About NSA Spying
Email snooping might be the scandal of the day, but don't forget about the surveillance state's network informers and agents provocateurs.
Only Martians, by now, are unaware of the phone and online data scooped up by the National Security Agency (though if it turns out that they are aware, the NSA has surely picked up their signals and crunched their metadata). American high-tech surveillance is not, however, the only kind around. There's also the lower tech, up-close-and-personal kind that involves informers and sometimes government-instigated violence.
Just how much of this is going on and in how coordinated a way no one out here in the spied-upon world knows. The lower-tech stuff gets reported, if at all, only one singular, isolated event at a time—look over here, look over there, now you see it, now you don't. What is known about such surveillance as well as the suborning of illegal acts by government agencies, including the FBI, in the name of counterterrorism has not been put together by major news organizations in a way that would give us an overview of the phenomenon. (The ACLU has done by far the best job of compiling reports on spying on Americans of this sort.)
Some intriguing bits about informers and agents provocateurs briefly made it into the public spotlight when Occupy Wall Street was riding high. But as always, dots need connecting. Here is a preliminary attempt to sort out some patterns behind what could be the next big story about government surveillance and provocation in America.
Two Stories from Occupy Wall Street
The first is about surveillance. The second is about provocation.
On September 17, 2011, Plan A for the New York activists who came to be known as Occupy Wall Street was to march to the territory outside the bank headquarters of JPMorgan Chase. Once there, they discovered that the block was entirely fenced in. Many activists came to believe that the police had learned their initial destination from e-mail circulating beforehand. Whereupon they headed for nearby Zuccotti Park and a movement was born.
The evening before May Day 2012, a rump Occupy group marched out of San Francisco's Dolores Park and into the Mission District, a neighborhood where not so many 1-percenters live, work, or shop. There, they proceeded to trash "mom and pop shops, local boutiques and businesses, and cars," according to Scott Rossi, a medic and eyewitness, who summed his feelings up this way afterward: "We were hijacked." The people "leading the march tonight," he added, were
"clean cut, athletic, commanding, gravitas not borne of charisma but of testosterone and intimidation. They were decked out in outfits typically attributed to those in the 'black bloc' spectrum of tactics, yet their clothes were too new, and something was just off about them. They were very combative and nearly physically violent with the livestreamers on site, and got ignorant with me, a medic, when I intervened... I didn't recognize any of these people. Their eyes were too angry, their mouths were too severe. They felt 'military' if that makes sense. Something just wasn't right about them on too many levels."
He was quick to add, "I'm not one of those tin foil hat conspiracy theorists. I don't subscribe to those theories that Queen Elizabeth's Reptilian slave driver masters run the Fed. I've read up on agents provocateurs and plants and that sort of thing and I have to say that, without a doubt, I believe 100% that the people that started tonight's events in the Mission were exactly that."
Taken aback, Occupy San Francisco condemned the sideshow: "We consider these acts of vandalism and violence a brutal assault on our community and the 99%."
Where does such vandalism and violence come from? We don't know. There are actual activists who believe that they are doing good this way; and there are government infiltrators; and then there are double agents who don't know who they work for, ultimately, but like smashing things or blowing them up. By definition, masked trashers of windows in Oakland or elsewhere are anonymous. In anonymity, they—and the burners of flags and setters of bombs—magnify their power. They hijack the media spotlight. In this way, tiny groups—incendiary, sincere, fraudulent, whoever they are—seize levers that can move the entire world.
The Sting of the Clueless Bee
Who casts the first stone? Who smashes the first window? Who teaches bombers to build and plant actual or spurious bombs? The history of the secret police planting agents provocateurs in popular movements goes back at least to nineteenth century France and twentieth century Russia. In 1905, for example, the priest who led St. Petersburg's revolution was some sort of double agent, as was the man who organized the assassination of the Czar's uncle, the Grand Duke. As it happens, the United States has its own surprisingly full history of such planted agents at work turning small groups or movements in directions that, for better or far more often worse, they weren't planning on going. One well-documented case is that of "Tommy the Traveler," a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organizer who after years of trying to arouse violent action convinced two 19-year-old students to firebomb an ROTC headquarters at Hobart College in upstate New York. The writer John Schultz reported on likely provocateurs in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention of 1968. How much of this sort of thing went on? Who knows? Many relevant documents molder in unopened archives, or have been heavily redacted or destroyed.
As the Boston marathon bombing illustrates, there are homegrown terrorists capable of producing the weapons they need and killing Americans without the slightest help from the US government. But historically, it's surprising how relatively often the gendarme is also a ringleader. Just how often is hard to know, since information on the subject is fiendishly hard to pry loose from the secret world.
Through 2011, 508 defendants in the US were prosecuted in what the Department of Justice calls "terrorism-related cases." According to Mother Jones's Trevor Aaronson, the FBI ran sting operations that "resulted in prosecutions against 158 defendants"—about one-third of the total. "Of that total, 49 defendants participated in plots led by an agent provocateur—an FBI operative instigating terrorist action. With three exceptions, all of the high-profile domestic terror plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings."
In Cleveland, on May Day of 2012, in the words of a Rolling Stone exposé, the FBI "turned five stoner misfits into the world's most hapless terrorist cell." To do this, the FBI put a deeply indebted, convicted bank robber and bad-check passer on their payroll, and hooked him up with an arms dealer, also paid by the Bureau. The FBI undercover man then hustled five wacked-out wannabe anarchists into procuring what they thought was enough C4 plastic explosive to build bombs they thought would blow up a bridge. The bombs were, of course, dummies. The five were arrested and await trial.
What do such cases mean? What is the FBI up to? Trevor Aaronson offers this appraisal:
"The FBI's goal is to create a hostile environment for terrorist recruiters and operators—by raising the risk of even the smallest step toward violent action. It's a form of deterrence… Advocates insist it has been effective, noting that there hasn't been a successful large-scale attack against the United States since 9/11. But what can't be answered—as many former and current FBI agents acknowledge—is how many of the bureau's targets would have taken the step over the line at all, were it not for an informant."
Perhaps Aaronson is a bit too generous. The FBI may, at times, be anything but thoughtful in its provocations. It may, in fact, be flatly dopey. COINTELPRO records released since the 1960s under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that it took FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover until 1968 to discover that there was such a thing as a New Left that might be of interest. Between 1960 and 1968, as the New Left was becoming a formidable force in its own right, the Bureau's top officials seem to have thought that groups like Students for a Democratic Society were simply covers for the Communist Party, which was like mistaking the fleas for the dog. We have been assured that the FBI of today has learned something since the days of J. Edgar Hoover. But of ignorance and stupidity there is no end.