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Todd Gitlin, Are "Intelligence" and Instigation Running Riot?

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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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 expose', 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.

Trivial and Nontrivial Pursuits

Entrapment and instigation to commit crimes are in themselves genuine dangers to American liberties, even when the liberties are those of the reckless and wild. But there is another danger to such pursuits: the attention the authorities pay to nonexistent threats (or the creation of such threats) is attention not paid to actual threats.  

Anyone concerned about the security of Americans should cast a suspicious eye on the allocation or simply squandering of resources on wild goose chases. Consider some particulars which have recently come to light.  Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) has unearthed documents showing that, in 2011 and 2012, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other federal agencies were busy surveilling and worrying about a good number of Occupy groups -- during the very time that they were missing actual warnings about actual terrorist actions.  

From its beginnings, the Occupy movement was of considerable interest to the DHS, the FBI, and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies, while true terrorists were slipping past the nets they cast in the wrong places.  In the fall of 2011, the DHS specifically asked its regional affiliates to report on "Peaceful Activist Demonstrations, in addition to reporting on domestic terrorist acts and "significant criminal activity.'"

Aware that Occupy was overwhelmingly peaceful, the federally funded Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), one of 77 coordination centers known generically as "fusion centers," was busy monitoring Occupy Boston daily.  As the investigative journalist Michael Isikoff recently reported, they were not only tracking Occupy-related Facebook pages and websites but "writing reports on the movement's potential impact on "commercial and financial sector assets.'"

It was in this period that the FBI received the second of two Russian police warnings about the extremist Islamist activities of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the future Boston Marathon bomber.  That city's police commissioner later testified that the federal authorities did not pass any information at all about the Tsarnaev brothers on to him, though there's no point in letting the Boston police off the hook either.  The ACLU has uncovered documents showing that, during the same period, they were paying close attention to the internal workings of"Code Pink and Veterans for Peace.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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