Washington State peace activists allege that an army intelligence analyst infiltrated their group and collected private information that was later shared with several law enforcement agencies. Discovered through a public records request, the covert surveillance of civilian organizations by a military official is the latest threat to First Amendment rights, and questions surrounding the legality of these activities have been raised.
From September 2007 through July 21, 2009, John Towery II, a civilian army intelligence analyst at Fort Lewis (Washington) Force Protection Fusion Cell posed as anarchist “John Jacob” at public and private meetings of several Washington area activist groups. The Olympia Port Militarization Resistance (OPMR), North West Anti Imperialist Direct Action Coalition (NWAIDAC), and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) all appear to have been infiltrated.
Towery had direct access to members’ personal information and private electronic conversations as a participant and one of several administers of OPMR electronic communications. According to several Olympia-based activists, Towery has admitted the information he collected was shared with “an intelligence network that included county sheriffs from Pierce, Thurston and other WA counties, municipal police agencies from Tacoma, Olympia, Seattle and elsewhere, WA State Police, the US Army, FBI, Homeland Security, Joint Terrorism Task Force, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agency” and other agencies. He also reportedly admitted that additional government spies exist but provided no further details. Based on the information he clandestinely collected, preemptive arrests of several protestors were made during a March 2007 anti-war protest attended by OPMR members.
OPMR member Drew Hendricks, said, “When the government is caught spying on its citizens, it tends to chill the ability of people to freely associate and directly impacts their First Amendment rights.”
Emails sent to The Olympian from the Fusion Cell’s spokesman, Joseph Piek, confirmed Towery’s employment at the military base. “John Towery performs sensitive work within the installation law enforcement community,” read part of Piek’s email. Piek also said an internal investigation into the matter had been started.
A former judge advocate for the Coast Guard and the president of the National Institute of Military Justice, Eugene R. Fidell, questioned whether military surveillance operations targeted on peaceful protestors is a violation of the Posse Comitatus Act, which restricts the Army from conducting domestic law enforcement activities. Responding to news reports of Towery’s spying, Fidell said he believes there “is enough to think that there’s a domestic spying program at Fort Lewis,” he said. “And if there is, that’s a big deal.”
Despite these allegations, a July 30, 2009 editorial from the New York Times said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano believes “fusion centers were not intended to have a military presence.” She also promised additional transparency about any military role that may exist.