Back in the early 1970s, I worked for Pacific News Service (PNS), a small antiwar media outfit that operated out of the Bay Area Institute (BAI), a progressive think tank in San Francisco. The first story I ever wrote for PNS came about because an upset U.S. Air Force medic wanted someone to know about the American war wounded then pouring in from the invasion of Laos. So he snuck me onto Travis Air Force Base in northern California and into a military hospital to interview wigged-out guys with stumps for limbs who thought the war was a disaster. In some cases, they also thought we should have bombed the Vietnamese "back to the stone age."
I was a good boy from the 1950s and sneaking onto that base made me nervous indeed. It was also the most illegal act I encountered at either PNS or the institute in those years. We did, of course, regularly have active duty antiwar soldiers and members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War pass through our office, and we had an antiwar GI in Vietnam writing for us under a pseudonym. (At some point, we found out that the Pentagon had actually tracked down and interviewed every soldier in Vietnam with that pseudonymous name in its attempt to uncover our journalist.)
In any case, we doggedly researched, reported, wrote, and edited our stories on U.S. war policy, which we syndicated, with modest success, to mainstream newspapers as well as what, in those days, was romantically called "the underground press." The only hints of "violence" you might have stumbled across in our office would have been discussions of the violence of U.S. war policy.
So imagine my surprise -- okay, I shouldn't have been, but I was anyway -- when years later one of my co-workers got his FBI files thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, and it became clear, on reading through those heavily redacted, semi-blacked-out pages, that there had been an informer in our office, spying on us and feeding information to the Bureau. If that was true in a modest place like PNS/BAI, where wouldn't there have been such spies in the world of the antiwar movement? In fact, U.S. government informers and sometimes agents provocateurs were, it seems, a widespread phenomenon of those years. It's a story that has never fully been told, in part obviously because the information to tell it just isn't fully there. By far the best account I've read on the subject, particularly when it comes to agents provocateurs -- government agents sent in to provoke violence -- was a section of Todd Gitlin's 1980 book The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left.
Recently, as Edward Snowden's National Security Agency revelations about the high-tech gathering of global (and domestic) communications of every imaginable sort began unspooling, Gitlin's work came to mind again. I had certainly been aware of how many post-9/11 "terror" cases against American Muslims rested on the acts and testimony of government informers, who sometimes even provided (fake) weaponry to hapless plotters and the spark to begin plotting in the first place. I began to wonder, however, what we didn't know about the low-tech side of America's massive intelligence overreach. So I picked up the phone and called Gitlin. The answer, as his piece today indicates, is one hell of a horrifying lot. Among the few outfits to pay significant attention to spies and informers in the ranks of groups opposed to some aspect of Washington's policies, the ACLU stands out. In fact, in a map that organization created, "Spying on First Amendment Activity -- State by State," you can take a Mr. Toad's wild ride through what's known of the universe of the twenty-first century American informer. TomDispatch is pleased to follow up with a Mr. Todd's wild ride through the thickets of American intelligence clearly on the march domestically. Tom
The Wonderful American World of Informers and Agents Provocateurs
Close Encounters of the Lower-Tech Kind
By Todd Gitlin- Advertisement -
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.- Advertisement -
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."