The Federal Bureau of Investigation was recently caught with its proverbial pants down after the American Civil Liberties Union received documentation of a meeting entitled “Domestic Terrorism Symposium,” in which the FBI, U.S. Secret Service, Michigan State Police and Michigan State University Public Safety sat down together at a Holiday Inn Express in Belleville to discuss the terrorist threat posed by such allegedly violent East Lansing ne’er-do-wells as the pro-affirmative action group BAMN, the anti-war Direct Action and, perhaps the most threatening of the lot, the East Lansing Animal Rights Movement.
Not surprisingly, many students are dismayed to find that the terrorist label has become broad enough in the aftermath of Sept. 11 to apply to both Hamas and a handful of students who get miffed when Maybelline gets smeared in the eyes of rabbits. The FBI maintains that students have nothing to fear, with FBI senior resident agent Richard Licht assuring us that illegal surveillance is not an FBI tactic and that “there is a lot of misconception about what we do out there.” However, when it comes to investigating student groups, the bureau’s less-than-perfect track record shows that it lost any claim to the benefit of the doubt a long time ago.
It’s always cliche to compare anything to the 1960s, but in this case, the parallels are clear. The FBI launched the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) in 1956 to investigate (and subsequently destroy) the Communist Party USA, but soon set its sights on the much more formidable growing student movement. According to internal FBI documents, COINTELPRO’s explicit purpose was “to expose, disrupt and otherwise neutralize the activities of this group (the New Left) and persons connected with it. It is hoped that with this new program their violent and illegal activities may be reduced if not curtailed.” This kickoff document recommended the authorization “to immediately initiate a coordinated Counter-Intelligence Program directed at exposing, disrupting, and otherwise neutralizing the New Left and Key Activists,” all in the name of ensuring domestic peace and quiet while maintaining racial segregation in the South and a disastrous war in Vietnam. This was accomplished through menacingly-titled programs such as Project MERRIMAC, Project RESISTANCE and Operation CHAOS. In Operation CHAOS alone, the CIA illegally spied on its on citizens in order to compile 3,500 “domestic security” memos and 3,000 “action items” that it sent to the FBI. COINTELPRO’s efforts hit uncomfortably close to home when former Michigan Daily editor and Students for a Democratic Society co-founder Tom Hayden was specifically targeted as a “key activist” in one internal memo that outlined the various options that could be used to smear his name and “neutralize” the threat he posed to domestic security.
While the FBI’s current scrutiny of MSU student groups clearly isn’t as draconian as actions taken under COINTELPRO, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t cause for concern. At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, it’s worth pointing out that COINTELPRO’s existence wasn’t even made public until a group called the Citizens’ Committee to Investigate the FBI broke into bureau offices and released stolen documents to the press. On the other hand, the FBI’s current involvement with student groups was made public through a Freedom of Information Act request, in which the FBI is allowed to withhold any information it deems too sensitive to reveal to the public. It took much agonizing on the part of the ACLU in order to finally receive the meager 10-page document that reveals the FBI’s involvement with MSU student groups, and the ACLU has pressed charges in order to speed up the release of documents detailing the investigations of Greenpeace, United for Peace and Justice, Code Pink, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Muslim Public Affairs Council. The ACLU has found other examples of the FBI working in conjunction with local and state law enforcement agencies to gather information on peaceful left-leaning groups, such as the compiling of names and license plate numbers of anti-war and environmental activists in Denver. Through the FOIA, the ACLU has only been able to take tiny peeks into the FBI’s domestic anti-terrorism investigations. While another exploratory break-in is probably ill advised, we are still without a full picture of the FBI’s involvement with student political organizations.
Although unsettled by the investigation, Direct Action is not letting it interfere with its plans for the year. The State News, MSU’s student newspaper, has fallen in line with the FBI, running a news article with the hysteria-tinged title “Local terrorist activity suspected” in the aftermath of the ACLU’s discovery. I spoke with DA member Stefan Lanwermeyer about this, expecting him to be dismayed by both the FBI’s actions and with the negative portrayal of Direct Action by the student press. Although DA’s official response to the State News’s coverage was nothing short of scathing, Lanwermeyer was excited about DA’s future. He says that “we view the FBI’s investigation as an intimidation tactic,” but this is having the opposite effect. He cheerfully reports that “our first meeting this fall was the largest we’ve ever had, and about 60 percent of the attendees were there because of the headlines.” DA, whose plans for the year include such typical terrorist standbys as providing resources for hurricane relief and encouraging high school students to resist military recruiters, has been subjected to a history of police interference that ranges from not-so-subtle eavesdropping on meetings to videotaping rally participants. Lanwermeyer is wary of hastily linking this with the FBI’s previous activity, saying that “what happened in the 1960s was a long time ago.” However, he points out that current law enforcement activities “could shape” into something resembling COINTELPRO, but that it’s a ways off. Instead, he seems more inclined to ride the wave of press and watch the organization grow. So much for intimidation tactics.
Mallen can be reached at email@example.com.