The US Government Spying on Journalists and Activists is the American Way
Once again, the United States government has been caught tracking and keeping a database of “agitators” and “organizers.”
On Wednesday, NBC San Diego published leaked documents which showed that the U.S. government was tracking and keeping a database of journalists and activists working with or covering the migrant caravans at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The documents came from a whistleblower at the Department of Homeland Security and included screenshots of an online database used jointly by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Border Patrol, Homeland Security and FBI agents from the San Diego district.
The screenshots show headshots of the individuals being tracked and include information like name, date of birth and their “role,” which for some is listed as “instigator”, “media/photographer” or “organizer.” A note is also made of whether an alert was placed on the individual.
In recent months, organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have reported that journalists and activists crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are being detained and questioned for hours at a time. The news from NBC San Diego confirms their suspicions that the people being targeted and questioned at the border are on some sort of government database or targeted list.
US Government Spies on Activists all the Time
While the news that the U.S. government is spying on, tracking and harassing journalists and activists at the border is disturbing, it’s important to note that this is nothing new and it is not unique to the Trump administration. Casting it as such is short-sighted and dangerous.
Americans need to realize that we all share relatively similar frustrations and struggles with our government and in regards to privacy, it is not Democrats spying on Americans or Republicans spying on Americans, it is the federal government itself.
The federal government has a deep-seated and vested interest in monitoring, infiltrating and controlling civic engagement and activism. We know the government has done this for decades and it has not stopped. This is what the U.S. government does and is frighteningly good at, it is in fact, the American way.
Many by now know that the federal government and FBI spent 15 years (1956-1971) monitoring, infiltrating and discrediting political organizations under a program called COINTELPRO, but despite the magnitude of this revelation at the time, the government still does it.
Recent Examples of US Government Spying
Two of the most well-known and recent examples are the Occupy Movement and Standing Rock, plus of course, the revelations made public by Edward Snowden as to the size, scope and capacity of the NSA.
The Occupy Movement was fiercely critical of big banks, Wall Street, and corporate America which of course, resulted in a huge and well-coordinated joint private and public sector effort to delegitimize the movement.
In 2012, the Partnership for Civil Justice (PCJF) obtained through a FOIA request heavily redacted documents showing a highly coordinated effort between the federal government and private corporations to suppress the Occupy Movement.
The following is a small sample of what was disclosed in the documents received by the PCJF. The rest can be read here.
- As early as August 19, 2011, the FBI in New York was meeting with the New York Stock Exchange to discuss the Occupy Wall Street protests that wouldn’t start for another month. By September, prior to the start of the OWS, the FBI was notifying businesses that they might be the focus of an OWS protest.
- The FBI’s Indianapolis division released a “Potential Criminal Activity Alert” on September 15, 2011, even though they acknowledged that no specific protest date had been scheduled in Indiana. The documents show that the Indianapolis division of the FBI was coordinating with “All Indiana State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies,” as well as the “Indiana Intelligence Fusion Center,” the FBI “Directorate of Intelligence” and other national FBI coordinating mechanisms.
- Documents released show coordination between the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and corporate America. They include a report by the Domestic Security Alliance Council (DSAC), described by the federal government as “a strategic partnership between the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the private sector,” discussing the OWS protests at the West Coast ports to “raise awareness concerning this type of criminal activity.” The DSAC report shows the nature of secret collaboration between American intelligence agencies and their corporate clients – the document contains a “handling notice” that the information is “meant for use primarily within the corporate security community. Such messages shall not be released in either written or oral form to the media, the general public or other personnel…” (The DSAC document was also obtained by the Northern California ACLU which has sought local FBI surveillance files.)
- Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS) reported to the DSAC on the relationship between OWS and organized labor for the port actions. The NCIS describes itself as “an elite worldwide federal law enforcement organization” whose “mission is to investigate and defeat criminal, terrorist, and foreign intelligence threats to the United States Navy and Marine Corps ashore, afloat and in cyberspace.” The NCIS also assists with the transport of Guantanamo prisoners.
- DSAC issued several tips to its corporate clients on “civil unrest” which it defines as ranging from “small, organized rallies to large-scale demonstrations and rioting.” It advised to dress conservatively, avoid political discussions and “avoid all large gatherings related to civil issues. Even seemingly peaceful rallies can spur violent activity or be met with resistance by security forces. Bystanders may be arrested or harmed by security forces using water cannons, tear gas or other measures to control crowds.”
Throughout the Occupy Movement, the government acted essentially as the security arm of Wall Street and a handful of private elite corporations.
Standing Rock, Journalists Targeted
During the protests of the North Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock in 2016, this pairing of government law enforcement agencies with private corporations to monitor activists groups was seen again.
The ACLU reported, “Email communications during a police crackdown on protesters were leaked showing an alliance between the pipeline’s private security firm, the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, North Dakota’s U.S. attorney’s office, and local law enforcement agencies.”
To be clear, the concerning issue of the alliance between public and private companies to quell dissent is that government agencies are choosing to protect corporate financial interests over the constitutional rights of protestors.
There’s the case of New York Times reporter Ali Watkins who had seven months worth of her email and phone communications seized by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and was only notified of the seizure in February of 2018, after the fact.
New guidelines set by the DOJ in 2015 under former Attorney General Eric Holder had stipulated that reporters be notified before having their communications seized except in extraordinary circumstances. A lawsuit filed by the First Amendment Coalition is attempting to determine to what extent, if any, the DOJ followed its own guidelines when seizing her records — guidelines which were established in response to the discovery that a secret warrant was used to seize the phone records of 21 Associated Press reporters.
There’s also the case of documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras who says she was detained at the U.S. border more than 40 times between 2006 and 2012. Ms. Poitras made the Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour and has made other award-winning documentaries on the Middle East. She is most definitely on a database of “agitators.”
The only thing unique about San Diego’s revelation of the migrant caravan database is that the revelation came so quickly; that a whistleblower came forward while the program was still in place.
More and more Americans are concerned about “big brother,” privacy violations, and the unchecked power of the federal government and that means more people are speaking up and exposing the government. However, the natural response of the federal government will likely be, of course, to clamp down further and create more databases, track more people and find new ways to spy so as to prevent whistleblowers from speaking up. It’s a cycle that could get scarier and scarier.
Big Brother, Corporate America, DSAC and InfraGard
What’s scariest of all is perhaps the federal government’s alignment with the corporate world to infiltrate and suppress American dissent and the growth of the corporate espionage industry itself. The infiltration of the Occupy Movement was largely run by the Domestic Security Alliance Council (DSAC), a mysterious alliance of federal government agencies and the private sector.
According to their website, “The Domestic Security Alliance Council (DSAC) is a strategic partnership between the U.S. government and the U.S. private industry that enhances communication and promotes the timely and effective exchange of security and intelligence information between the federal government and the private sector.”
The website also states, “The DSAC program has grown to include more than 509 member companies representing almost every critical sector and over 50 unique business industries.”
But DSAC is not the only such alliance, there is also another mysterious organization called InfraGard.
This is how InfraGard explains itself on its website:
“InfraGard is a partnership between the FBI and members of the private sector. The InfraGard program provides a vehicle for seamless public-private collaboration with government that expedites the timely exchange of information and promotes mutual learning opportunities relevant to the protection of Critical Infrastructure. With thousands of vetted members nationally, InfraGard’s membership includes business executives, entrepreneurs, military and government officials, computer professionals, academia and state and local law enforcement; each dedicated to contributing industry specific insight and advancing national security.”
InfraGard and DSAC are essentially the muscle for Wall Street to ensure nobody messes with their profit. According to a report called Spooky Business by the Ralph Nader-founded non-profit Essential Information, that muscle is huge and sweeping.
The 50-plus page report details how corporations are hiring former CIA, FBI, NSA, military and law enforcement agents to go after and discredit or shutdown activist organizations. The methods they employ are numerous: planting false information, blackmail, investigating the private lives of activists, computer hacking, wiretapping and more.
Included in the document are examples of how major corporations and their trade associations – including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Walmart, Monsanto, Bank of America, Dow Chemical, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Chevron, McDonald’s, Shell and more – have used espionage against activist and whistleblowers. And with the existence of DSAC and InfraGard and others like them, they are working hand in hand with the U.S. federal government.
In fact, Russel Corn, the managing director of Diligence, a corporate espionage agency, said in Spooky Business, “Private spies make up 25 percent of every activist camp.’ If you stuck an intercept up near one of those camps, you wouldn’t believe the amount of outgoing calls after every meeting saying, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to cut the fence.’ Easily one in four of the people there are taking the corporate shilling.”
While Corn’s claims can’t be verified and, as Spooky Business noted, could be self-serving, there is no doubt infiltrating activist organizations and tracking journalists is a long-running U.S. federal government and bipartisan practice.
There is a reason in 2013 the NSA built the massive Utah Data Center, a 1.5 million square foot facility that stores the data it collects from around the world.
The CPJ reported, “On the low end, it is thought that the Utah Data Center can store between 3 and 12 exabytes of data. (An exabyte is the equivalent of a billion gigabytes.) To put this in perspective, in 2003 researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, estimated that the amount of information generated by all conversations since the dawn of humanity would total about 5 exabytes. Bolder theorists such as the former NSA analyst Binney say the Utah facility will have a gross storage capacity of about one zettabyte, or 1,024 exabytes.”
How long will it be before the NSA needs to expand its capacity?