Americans should never be spied on for exercising their Constitutional free speech rights. That is why the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and Defending Dissent Foundation, joined by over sixty other civil society groups calling on the Senate and House Judiciary Committees to investigate FBI and DHS monitoring of First Amendment protected political organizing.
Documents recently released through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that DHS and the FBI are abusing counterterrorism authorities:
- Black Lives Matter: DHS used social media to continually monitor Black Lives Matter organizing and protests, and prepared detailed reports about peaceful protests for “situational awareness.”
- Occupy: The FBI began monitoring Occupy Wall Street, and met with the New York Stock Exchange and businesses, in August 2011, one month before the protests even began
- School of the Americas Watch: the FBI used its counterterrorism authority to infiltrate and monitor the nonviolent human rights group School of the Americas Watch for ten years, despite acknowledging the group’s peaceful intent and lack of any nexus to terrorism;
- Keystone Pipeline: FBI agents paid visits to activists in the Pacific Northwest to interrogate them about the movement, even while admitting there was no suspicion of any criminal activity, and the FBI cultivated informants, and created dossiers on Tar Sands Blockade, a Houston-based group opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline.
Not only is spying on political dissent inherently at odds with the principles that underlie a free society, it creates a chilling effect on speech. If people think they might be targets of government surveillance, they might be less likely to express themselves. If people are never sure if fellow activists are in fact their comrades, or government spies, it fosters an atmosphere of distrust corrosive to social movements.
In 2010 following a spate of similar revelations about FBI monitoring of domestic advocacy groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Greenpeace, and the Catholic Workers Movement, the Department of Justice Inspector General issued a scathing report. However, Congress refused to take action or institute reforms.
Six years later, with a fresh set of revelations of spying on new targets, it’s time for Congress to step up to the plate and find out who else the FBI and DHS are spying on, how extensive the monitoring is, and why it keeps happening. Then, Congress must take action to prevent it from happening again.