FBI Spied On Activists Because Protecting Corporate Interests Is Roughly Equivalent To Ensuring National Security
from the our-disregarded-internal-policies-trump-your-First-Amendment-rights dept
That whole thing about the FBI not surveilling people based solely on First Amendment activity? The thing that’s been in all the (FISA) papers (and agency policies)? Yeah, the FBI hasn’t heard of it either.
The FBI breached its own internal rules when it spied on campaigners against the Keystone XL pipeline, failing to get approval before it cultivated informants and opened files on individuals protesting against the construction of the pipeline in Texas, documents reveal.
Internal agency documents show for the first time how FBI agents have been closely monitoring anti-Keystone activists, in violation of guidelines designed to prevent the agency from becoming unduly involved in sensitive political issues.
“Unduly involved” is right. First of all, a majority of what was monitored was First Amendment activity, something no federal intelligence or investigative agency is supposed to be doing. Certainly, there can be law enforcement monitoring of protests as they occur, but there’s no provision in the law that allows the FBI to monitor people solely because of their activism.
Unless, of course, these activists are declared “extremists.” Then all bets (and Constitutional protections) are off.
“Many of these extremists believe the debates over pollution, protection of wildlife, safety, and property rights have been overshadowed by the promise of jobs and cheaper oil prices,” the FBI document states.
“Extremists” are often mentioned in the same breath as “domestic terrorists,” so with a little bit of rebranding, the FBI is now able to surveill people solely for their First Amendment-protected activities. That’s handy and not totally unexpected, given the agency’s long history of eyeballing activists who run contrary to its view on How Things Should Be. At one point, it was uppity blacks and encroaching homosexuals. Now, it’s people who don’t want an oil pipeline running through their neighborhoods.
And, even though we know the FBI has clearly taken a stance on controversial issues in the past and shaped its surveillance activities accordingly, it’s rather jarring to see an investigative agency decide who’s right and wrong by issuing a statement (wrapped in a self-justifying plan of action) on behalf of one side of the issue.
“The Keystone pipeline, as part of the oil and natural gas industry, is vital to the security and economy of the United States.”
Having decided that protecting corporate interests was roughly aligned with its “national security” purview, agents then routed around any internal controls that might have restricted its plans to break FBI policy.
[T]he partially redacted documents reveal the investigation into anti-Keystone activists occurred without prior approval of the top lawyer and senior agent in the Houston field office, a stipulation laid down in rules provided by the attorney general.
But, hey, no problem because the FBI totally fixed things in-house and in post.
Confronted by evidence contained in the cache of documents, the agency admitted that “FBI approval levels required by internal policy were not initially obtained” for the investigation, but said the failure was remedied and later reported internally.
The supposed extremists it monitored the longest were part of an organization known as the Tar Sands Blockade, a group committed to nonviolent protest. While minor crimes such as trespassing were committed by members of the group, nothing rose to the level of what one would normally associate with an FBI investigation. And it went on for 11 months after the “error” that allowed the investigation to exist in the first place was discovered.
Mike German, former FBI agent and fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice lays out the obvious problem with the FBI’s behavior:
“It is clearly troubling that these documents suggest the FBI interprets its national security mandate as protecting private industry from political criticism,” he said.
That is troubling. Just as troubling is the agency’s determination that the surveillance it never should have initiated resulted in no “adverse effects.” But for who? Obviously, the FBI walked away from this with little more than another dent in its now-heavily damaged reputation. But what about those who were surveilled? Or those who might be in the future when they exercise their First Amendment rights? The FBI’s self-assessment doesn’t factor in these consequences and because it doesn’t, it will likely make the same (intentional) “mistakes” in the future.