I can’t help but wonder if the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) and the U.S. Attorney in Chicago stopped to think about what the public reaction would be when they seized files and equipment of anti-war groups and served their leaders with subpoenas to testify before a grand jury investigating possible material support of terrorism. (See related news article)  All this happened the same week the Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General released a report finding the FBI has been investigating domestic dissent as if were terrorism and news reports revealed that FBI agents have been cheating on exams on rules for terrorism investigations.  What were they thinking?

The reaction to the raids and subpoenas was swift and strong, and organized calls for ending the investigation and returning the files and equipment are spreading. Rallies at federal buildings and the FBI headquarters, online petitions, call in days and resolutions from at least two labor councils have been ongoing since the Sept. 24 raids. Faith-based, civil liberties, labor and other groups have spoken out against the investigation as an attempt to intimidate and silence legitimate free speech. An article in Change.org said, “[T]he bureau may just have given the [anti-war] movement – which indisputably waned with the election of Barack Obama – the spark activists say it needed.”

So, what were the G-Men thinking? They aren’t saying, and we can only speculate. Here are two possibilities that have occurred to me:

  • Maybe they thought the peace groups could be intimidated from their anti-war advocacy and from pursuing international alliances with human rights groups. If so, they have badly misjudged their target.
  • Maybe they think that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project means that supporting human rights in places where listed terrorist groups operate, like Columbia or Gaza, now constitutes material support of terrorism. Much of the public reaction has cited this possibility, which demonstrates the need for Congress and the administration to fix the law so that nonviolent advocacy is not treated in the same way as providing explosives.

Whatever they are thinking, these G-Men stirred up a hornets’ nest and the anti-war bees are agitated and looking for places to sting back. So who are these G-Men?

Although this has happened under the Obama administration, federal criminal investigations are carried out under the director of U.S. Attorneys, who are supposed to be independent and politically neutral. That makes U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of the Northern District of Illinois, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2001 and retained by President Obama, the person in charge of this investigation. Fitzgerald is known as an ambitious prosecutor of high profile cases. Examples include the Valerie Plame case, which resulted in the conviction of then Vice-President Richard Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby; corruption charges that landed former Illinois Governor George Ryan in prison, and charges against Governor Rod Blagojevitch for trying to sell Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder. That ended in a mistrial on all corruption charges, although Blagojevitch was convicted of lying to investigators. Fitzpatrick has been mentioned as a possible replacement for FBI Director Robert Mueller, whose term ends next year.

The FBI appears to be spearheading the investigation, and carried out the searches of the activists’ homes and offices. There isn’t room in this blog post to list all the problems the FBI seems to be having, particularly in figuring out the difference between free speech, dissent and actual terrorism. Suffice it to say that the 2008 FBI Domestic Investigative Operational Guidelines (DIOG) give the FBI overly broad powers, such collecting and mapping demographic data using criteria, such as behaviors, lifestyle characteristics and cultural traditions in communities with large ethnic populations. The DIOG needs to be revised, and perhaps this incident will lead to the kind of Congressional oversight that will force reforms.

The Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which the FBI said cooperated in the Sept. 24 raids, are “multi-agency effort led by the Justice Department and FBI designed to combine the resources of federal, state, and local law enforcement,” according to DOJ.  They have been criticized for several documented instances of investigating peaceful protest groups in the U.S. Details are available from the ACLU Spy Files project.

Since grand jury proceedings are secret, and the FBI and Fitzgerald’s office have not released much information, it is difficult for the public to draw any definitive conclusions about where they are headed or why. But given the FBI’s history of attempts to suppress dissent and the political nature of the groups targeted in the Sept. 24 raids, there is a reasonable suspicion of political motivation. One thing Fitzgerald, the FBI and DOJ can be sure of: these hornets will continue to buzz.