If you've received a fairly serious threat against you or your business, you might think turning that info over to the FBI would be a good idea. Think again. The owners of antiwar.com found themselves on the receiving end of more than six years of monitoring and surveillance for doing just that, as Spencer Ackerman details at The Guardian.
The FBI monitored a prominent anti-war website for years, in part because agents mistakenly believed it had threatened to hack the bureau’s own site.
Internal documents show that the FBI’s monitoring of antiwar.com, a news and commentary website critical of US foreign policy, was sparked in significant measure by a judgment that it had threatened to “hack the FBI website” and involved a formal assessment of the “threat” the site posed to US national security.
But antiwar.com never threatened to hack the FBI website. Heavily redacted FBI documents, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and shared with the Guardian, show that Eric Garris, the site’s managing editor, passed along to the bureau a threat he received against his own website.
These documents are part of antiwar.com's ongoing lawsuit against the FBI (brought with the assistance of the ACLU). What's been released so far is heavily redacted and severely limited. The FBI's FOIA reply letter indicates it has only released 47 out of 170 "reviewed" pages. More details of this incursion on antiwar.com owners' First Amendment rights is sure to surface if the lawsuit is successful.
The mistake, which ran uncorrected for more than a half-decade, was prompted by an agent's mischaracterization of the threatening email Eric Garris received and forwarded to the agency in 2001 (see last page of PDF), the day after the 9/11 attacks. The message here was directed at antiwar.com, and Garris probably figured he was doing the right thing in alerting the FBI to such a threat against his site -- having no idea that FBI would misread the forwarded email to be a threat by Garris against the FBI.
“YOUR SITE IS GOING DOWN.”
“Be warned assholes, ill be posting your site address to all the hack boards tonight, telling them about the little article at the moscowtimes and all. YOUR SITE IS HISTORY”
Why this agent took it upon himself to investigate the messenger is unclear, but this mistake is cited years down the road as justification for the ongoing investigation. Certainly the date had something to do with it (even if this mistaken determination wasn't made until January of 2002). Every security and law enforcement agency was experiencing very heightened "awareness," for lack of a better word. But as the years wore on, no one seemed willing to shut the investigation down, despite having time for cooler heads to prevail and failing to turn up evidence suggesting the two site owners were a threat to national security.
Even more incredibly, the investigation wasn't limited to those affected by the mischaracterization by the FBI's San Francisco office. For whatever reason, the New Jersey branch independently opened its own
investigation -- one of the FBI's infamous "threat assessments
," an investigative "out" that allows the agency to monitor pretty much anyone for any period of time without having to justify its actions with little things like reasonable suspicion.
The agency continued this monitoring through 2008 (at least), despite the fact an analyst noted in 2004 that the investigation was highly questionable in terms of being constitutionally sound as well as noting the so-called evidence compiled to date was pretty much worthless.
ANALYST COMMENTS: The rights of individuals to post information and to express personal views on the Internet should be honored and protected; however, some material that is circulated on the Internet can compromise current active FBI investigations. The discovery of two detailed Excel spreadsheets posted on www.antiwar.com may not be significant by itself since distribution of the information on such lists are wide spread.
Many agencies outside of law enforcement have been utilizing this information to screen their employees. Still, it is unclear whether www.antiwar.com may only be posting research material compiled from multiple sources or if there is material posted that is singular in nature and not suitable for public release…
But this clear thinking is immediately undercut by the analyst's further comments, which question the financial ties of the website and refer to the San Francisco's office's mischaracterization of Garris' forwarded email as a relevant "fact."
There are several unanswered questions regarding www.antiwar.com. It describes itself as a non-profit group that survives on generous contributions from its readers. Who are these contributors and what are the funds utilized for? Due to the lack of background information available on Justin Raimondo, it is possible that this name is only a pseudonym used on www.antiwar.com. If this is so, then what is his true name? Two facts have been established by this assessment. Many individuals worldwide do view this website including individuals who are currently under investigation and Eric Garris has shown intent to disrupt FBI operations by hacking the FBI website.
First off, it's disconcerting to know that the FBI judges websites by their visitors. You may be a law-abiding citizen but if your site is visited by "persons of interest," there's a very good chance the FBI will be digging into your personal information as well. The documents detail that the seized hard drive of a suspect revealed that he had visited "many websites" over an 11-month period, with antiwar.com being one of them. If this is a justification for monitoring, then everything from Google's search page to those terrible cable company splash pages that get set as default home pages by installers could be considered worthy of further monitoring.
Second, the repetition of the mistaken conclusion is troublesome, especially as it asserts that hacking the FBI's public-facing site (i.e., tearing down its poster
) will somehow disrupt "FBI operations." While it may disrupt those who maintain the public site, it should
have little effect on FBI operations. This shows the irrational fear
of anything hacker-related has been deeply ingrained in government agencies for years. (Worse, it shows it hasn't improved.)
By 2005, both field offices determined the justification for ongoing monitoring of antiwar.org to be "meager" and "insufficient," but yet the investigations continued through 2008, at minimum. The end date (if there is one) remains a mystery as there is nothing in the released documents suggesting an official termination of the investigations.
And here's where we come to another harmful outcome of government surveillance. In 2011, the site owners discovered
they were being (or had been) investigated by the FBI. Thanks to this becoming public knowledge, the site's owners have seen a severe dropoff in income.
Garris said that since antiwar.com learned of the FBI surveillance in 2011, donations dried up by 20% in the following year.
“We’ve actually talked to three large contributors shortly after that who told us that they’d not feel comfortable giving us money anymore because they were afraid of the repercussions, and I don’t know how many other donors have been put off in that way,” Garris said.
An FBI agent's mistake is all it takes to open up your personal and financial data to curious federal agents. It's also all it takes to make it significantly harder to exercise your First Amendment rights. Adding a financial burden to the heightened possibility that your efforts (and unrelated activities) are being monitored is more than sufficiently chilling for most people. Hopefully, the site owners' lawsuit will hold someone accountable for a First Amendment-violating "mistake" that continued for more than 6 years, despite failing to uncover anything that justified continued surveillance.