A coalition of U.S. peace groups is pressing ahead with plans for what it hopes will be a massive march on Washington Jan. 27, even though newly released documents show the antiwar community is under Pentagon surveillance.
“The peace and justice movement helped make ending the war in Iraq the primary issue in this last election,” the umbrella group United for Peace and Justice said in a statement.
“The actions we take do make a difference, and now there is a new opportunity for us to move our work forward. On Election Day [Nov. 7], people took individual action by voting. On January 27, we will take collective action, as we march in Washington, D.C., to make sure Congress understands the urgency of this moment.”
Pentagon documents released by the American Civil Liberties Union last week show the Department of Defense monitoring the activities of a wide swath of peace groups, including Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, Code Pink, the American Friends Service Committee, the War Resisters League, and United for Peace and Justice, the umbrella group organizing January’s protest.
“This might have a chilling effect on some groups,” said United for Peace and Justice’s Leslie Cagan, “particularly among high-risk communities like immigrants who don’t have their papers yet and U.S. citizens or people with green cards who are of Muslim or South Asian or Middle Eastern descent. They’ve already been targeted by the government and they might feel like with this it’s just too dangerous to come out and protest.”
The documents come in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union earlier this year after evidence surfaced that the Pentagon was secretly conducting surveillance of peaceful antiwar and counter-military recruitment groups, including Quakers and student groups.
“We are not trying to hide anything,” Veterans for Peace Director Michael McPhearson told IPS. “We are not going to fear our government because it is our government and we’re citizens of this nation. All of us have served this nation, and we have the right to do this.”
“Veterans for Peace erected an antiwar display the week of 18 April 2005 at a local university,” reads a report on a New Orleans protest from the Pentagon’s Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) database. “A local army recruiter mistook the event as a memorial to fallen service members and arrived to view the display.”
According to the TALON report, six individuals shouted “war monger” and “baby killer” at the recruiter and a shoving match ensued.
“Veterans for Peace claim to be nonviolent,” the report concludes. “This incident demonstrates a propensity for violence, and the Veterans for Peace should be viewed as a possible threat to Army and DoD [Defense Department] personnel.”
Another Pentagon report documents an Apr. 5, 2005, protest in New Mexico. “Veterans for Peace (veteransforpeace.org), a peaceful antiwar/anti-military organization, held a protest east of the student union at New Mexico State University Campus in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Veterans for Peace members set up hundreds of white crosses in an open field representing soldiers killed in Iraq and were handing out antiwar, anti-military literature.”
The report, which was prepared by an “active duty U.S. Army officer,” goes on to mention that the group was planning similar low-key demonstrations at seven other universities in the U.S. Midwest, South, and Northeast.
“Veterans for Peace is a peaceful organization,” it says, “but there is a potential future protests could become violent.”
After the document’s release, Pentagon officials told reporters the material on antiwar groups should not have been collected.
“I don’t want it, we shouldn’t have had it, not interested in it,” Daniel Baur, the acting director of the Defense Department’s counterintelligence field activity unit, told the New York Times. “I don’t want to deal with it.”
Baur told the Times his agency is no longer monitoring peace groups.
“I don’t think the policy was as clear as it could have been,” he said. Once the problem was discovered, he said, “We fixed it.” Baur told the Times more than 180 entries in the database related to war protests were deleted from the system last year.
Experts on government spying caution not to take the Pentagon at its word, however. The American Civil Liberties Union notes the Defense Department documents reveal that other government agencies were also involved in the spying.
In one report, a Department of Homeland Security agent warned after a nonviolent protest by the War Resisters League at a military recruiting station that the group may favor”civil disobedience and vandalism.” The report indicates that the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces in Atlanta and New York were briefed on planned protests.
“In order to justify spying you have to have something called a predicate, which means there has to be some possibility of some kind of illegal activity,” intelligence analyst Chip Berlet told IPS from his office at Political Research Associates in Massachusetts.
“It has to be built around the idea of violence,” he said, “or the threat of violence or some kind of gunrunning and bomb-making, and so what they have is a career necessity to find predicates so that there is a tendency to look at any situation and say ‘this could lead to violence.’ And the next step is that if you can’t find the next evidence, then what you do is the agent in place helps the group build a bomb or buy weapons.”
So far, there’s no evidence the Pentagon or federal law enforcement are involved instigating violence among opponents of the Iraq war, but during the Vietnam War era, FBI counterintelligence programs often attempted to provoke peaceful activists.
According to a U.S. Senate Committee chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church, this included “sending an anonymous letter to the leader of a Chicago street gang (described as ‘violence-prone’) stating that the Black Panthers were supposed to have ‘a hit out for you.’ The letter was suggested because it “may intensify animosity” and cause the street gang leader to ‘take retaliatory action.'”
The Church committee also reported in that in 1968, “Bureau headquarters explained to the field that Dr. [Martin Luther] King must be destroyed because he was seen as a potential ‘messiah’ who could ‘unify and electrify’ the ‘black nationalist movement.’ Indeed, to the FBI he was a potential threat because he might ‘abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to white liberal doctrines (nonviolence). In short, a nonviolent man was to be secretly attacked and destroyed as insurance against his abandoning nonviolence.”
“This is not new in the history of this country, but it is outrageous,” United for Peace and Justice’s Leslie Cagan said of the Bush administration’s spying on antiwar activists.
“If we just look at this issue in isolation then we’re missing the heart of the matter,” she added. “One of the main things we have to be concerned about is how this whole war on terror plays out here at home and how they use it to justify absolutely everything they do, no matter how outrageous.”
(Inter Press Service)