Will Potter, author/writer at GreenIstheNewRed.com

A series of paramilitary-style raids were conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) against activists in Portland, Oregon, on July 25. Grand jury subpoenas were issued to individuals targeted in these raids. There were also individuals issued subpoenas in Olympia and Seattle in Washington. The subpoenas informed individuals they were to appear before a federal grand jury at the Federal Courthouse in Seattle on August 2.

FDL’s The Dissenter covered this development on July 27. The post explored the use of grand juries as a tool of political repression in great detail. Special attention was also paid to the reality that the FBI is looking for “anarchist materials” to allegedly track down individuals who might have been at “May Day riots” in Seattle. 

Author and writer for GreenIstheNewRed.com, Will Potter, has been following this as it develops as well. His latest post highlights the search warrants that indicate the FBI was looking for “anti-government or anarchist literature.”

Will and I had a discussion about the recent raids, grand juries, the FBI’s institutional drive to suppress radical groups, along with documents he uncovered through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that show he and other journalists covering the repression of political activists are under surveillance. 

Below is a transcript of the interview.

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KEVIN GOSZTOLA, The Dissenter: What can you describe has unfolded in the United States with these raids over the last few weeks going back to the raid in Seattle when Occupy Seattle organizers were raided?

WILL POTTER, GreenistheNewRed.com: What’s been going on in the last couple weeks in the Northwest is there’s been a series of raids and grand jury subpoenas in Seattle, Olympia, Washington and Portland, Oregon. The raids and search warrants lists that the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) were searching for “anarchist literature” alongside flags, banners, electronics, cell phones, address books and things like that. I think what’s most indicative of what’s going on though is that specific call for agents to seize “anarchist literature” as some kind of evidence of potential illegal activity. And with the grand jury, that’s especially troubling because grand juries have been used historically against social movements as tools of fishing expeditions and there used to seek out information about people’s politics and their political associations. So, I think that gives some indication where all of this is going.

GOSZTOLA: I’ve written a little bit about the grand juries that have been used by the Justice Department under the Obama administration. What’s your take on the willingness of the Justice Department to use these grand juries? Historically, are we seeing an escalation in the use or is this just standard operating procedure and were paying closer attention than typically?

POTTER: I think that’s difficult to answer. Grand juries by their nature are secretive. They’re required to be secretive. People are subpoenaed—Nobody knows how many grand juries are going on, whose subpoenaed, what they talked about. That’s part of their power. That being said, I think there is both an increased awareness of this and it seems to be an increase in the use of the grand juries in the last year or so.

Grand juries were particularly prevalent against the environmental movement and the animal rights movement in the mid-to-late ‘90s and there have been continued use of grand juries since then, also against antiwar movement and others. But it seems like there’s a renewed interest in this tactic. I mean, Jordan Halliday, who is an animal rights activist, was just released from prison after serving more than six months. Before that, he served another four months for resisting a grand jury and this is believed to be the first time in over thirty years that someone was jailed for both civil and criminal contempt for resisting a grand jury. So, to me, that also indicates the severity and overindulgence that the government was using that tactic.

GOSZTOLA: What about the materials, specifically, that are being sought and your thoughts on what could potentially happen with the grand jury because people are supposed to show up on July 31 in Seattle?

POTTER: The search warrants—As far as I know, they are all identical in the items that are being potentially seized and they include things like black clothing, paint, flags, “anti-government” or “anarchist literature,” documentation, such as letters or journals and things like that that are fairly typical. What stood out to me, of course, is this emphasis on black clothing, flags, “anarchist literature.” There’s been some preliminary reports already that this grand jury may be related to the May Day protests in Seattle in which some corporate property was destroyed in part by people that had dressed in a black bloc in black clothing.

I would really caution not to be directed too much in that direction and lose sight of the broader political climate that’s going on right now. This grand jury may be investigating black bloc activity. Even if it is, “anarchist literature” has nothing to do with that. I think this emphasis on people’s political beliefs is part of a much broader crackdown. I mean, recently I wrote about FBI training materials on anarchists as “domestic terrorists.” And one of these training documents—and this is according to the FBI’s own language, says that anarchists are “criminals seeking an ideology to justify their activity.” And I think that really says a lot about how the Bureau is approaching anarchists in the Occupy movement.

GOSZTOLA: To that point, the agency clearly has an institutional bias against permitting anarchist groups of people to operate and I think rightfully so many of the individuals are concerned they are undergoing this sort of suppression as a way to force them to divide off or force people who are progressives and are not into anarchist ideals to push away and distance themselves from these people. And it seems that a result is likely to happen is the division of the movement. What are your thoughts?

POTTER: Absolutely. These tactics are one hundred percent about dividing the movement and especially through instilling fear. When we understand how the grand jury operates, it forces activists to make a decision about, one, whether or not they will actually set foot in that grand jury room. When they do, everything that happens there is kept secret so it immediately fosters fear and distrust within the movement. It is impossible to know what was actually said. People start wondering if activists supplied information about each other, if they became informants. I mean, all these kinds of rumors and gossip can be incredibly destructive.

Even more important than that though is that these types of raids and grand juries also make people afraid even if they are not targets. When the FBI and JTTF are throwing flash bang grenades into people’s homes and then seizing “anarchist literature,” computers and all other political material, it sends a very clear message to the public. It sends a clear message to people who identify as anarchists. And it sends a message to the general public and other progressive groups that these people are perceived as criminals, as terrorists.

In all those ways it is about instilling division and fear and I think that’s why it is important that, as this unfolds, the movement that these people are a part of rally behind them as they face these grand juries and to show that they are supportive.

GOSZTOLA: How would you relate this to the other mechanism or tactic that the FBI uses, which is the infiltration—the sending in of people you could call provocateurs—as we’ve seen quite clearly in Cleveland and even in Chicago around the NATO summit? They’ve used coded language to specifically isolate individuals arrested and insert language and make it seem these are “self-proclaimed anarchists” intentionally. How would this relate to the grand jury use?

POTTER: I think that’s a great question. There are a couple immediate connections between them. One is that they are all part of the FBI’s obsession with identifying people perceived as leaders. The FBI historically has a difficult time conceptualizing anti-hierarchical movements. So, anarchists are very difficult for them to understand and they are always attempting to find the so-called leaders. And like you said, to point them out at protests for arrests, to target them with raids, grand juries, to some cases use entrapment attempts with informants.

More importantly, I think some of the parallels of the two are this criminalization of this ideology. I would argue that these entrapment attempts really grew out of not specific individuals and not the alleged crimes they were alleged to be a part of but their perceived politics. That’s what really happened everything that happened in Cleveland, everything that happened in Chicago. That’s what guided the timing of those announcements of the arrests of those people as “terrorists.” And that’s what guiding everything that’s going on in the Northwest with the focus on “anarchist literature.”

I think what we’re seeing is the scope of tactics that are being used against radical movements. In some cases, it’s extremely heavy-handed of directly targeting people through I would argue entrapment attempts, such as the five people in Chicago. In other cases, you have these raids and grand juries that are quite different and they’re not arresting and not charging them terrorists but the intent is to criminalize them because of their politics.

GOSZTOLA: In your tracking of the FBI in relation to so-called eco-terrorists and anarchists, is it that the FBI has an ideology that drives its actions against these radical organizations or is it that they have these resources? That in a post-9/11 world there are infinite amounts of resources that can be garnered through requests or budgets and they have these tools at their disposal and feel that they have to use them?

POTTER: I think that it’s really both of those explanations. Clearly, the history of the FBI—Its existence has been about targeting. We see from the top levels of government the targeting of the environmental rights movement, targeting anarchists as terrorists, surveillance of the Occupy Wall Street movement. All of this is not happening through the agency of specific individuals. All of this is coming from the top down.

That being said, there is personal agency in that these FBI agents see the “climate” and they are operating within that to progress their own careers, to fill the mission of the Bureau and of their own profession. So that’s how I think we should really see what’s going on. There’s some institutional pressure but there’s also pressure and it’s individual potential to take advantage of these resources.

I was talking to a former FBI agent about the entrapment cases in Cleveland and Chicago. He was saying this really began with the FBI’s targeting of Muslims after September 11th. He said after September 11th there was such little oversight. The Bureau was really able to do whatever it wanted in the name of targeting so-called Muslim terrorists that it was doing these very oppressive and illegal entrapments. Other agents within the FBI saw the success of that kind of informant-driven operation and they started applying it to their work as well. So we’re seeing it become much more common now with Occupy and other social movements.

GOSZTOLA: To what you uncovered recently about yourself and the surveillance of journalists, can you talk about that?

POTTER: Sure, so I originally through the Freedom of Information Act obtained some documents from the Counterterrorism Unit that show the unit is monitoring First Amendment Activity, including news articles, pieces, books and public lectures of people who are critical of this government oppression. Much of that was about my own work and my book, my articles, my public lectures. And the reason I chose to write about this is it really reflects the expanding scope of the “war on terrorism.” It’s not just about targeting people who are alleged to be involved in some illegal activity. It’s really about, as we’ve been discussing in this interview, criminalizing ideology. Criminalizing anyone who would even dare to question or talk about any of what is going on in the first place. I think that’s very indicative of where we’re at in the culture right now that the government is keeping files on journalists that are critical of government oppression.

GOSZTOLA: Isn’t it also that there is an element of criminalization of people who seek to exercise their freedom of information and apply for requests? I seem to recall a set of documents from the FBI where it was revealed that they thought they were revealing an element of anarchist organization. If they were submitting FOIA requests, it was something they should be on the look out for.

POTTER: Exactly. I think that’s a really good point because it’s not—It’s this culture of secrecy, that despite all the claims of the Obama administration has really become endemic. This idea that we don’t have any right to know what the government is actually doing let alone asking critical questions about it. So, I think you are right that even the act of pursuing act of information and using your rights through the freedom of information act and through other outlets of obtaining this information is perceived as a threat in and of itself.