New Report Documents Unchecked FBI Surveillance of U.S. Progressive Groups

Interview with Chip Gibbons, policy and legislative counsel with Defending Rights and Dissent, conducted by Scott Harris

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has a long and sordid history of spying on activists and groups dissenting from the nation’s mainstream political opinion. Not long after it was established in 1908, the FBI gathered information on socialist organizations and after World War I began, the Bureau focused on rooting out those who it viewed as disloyal, draft dodgers, labor unions and political radicals.

The FBI’s infamous 1920 Palmer Raids conducted by a young J. Edgar Hoover after 36 bombs targeted U.S. officials, resulted in the arrests of 5,000 citizens and 1,000 immigrants in 33 cities. Although none of those arrested were connected with the bombings, hundreds were deported. Fast forward to the 1950s and 1960s when the FBI surveilled and infiltrated leftist and communist groups during the McCarthy era – as well as civil rights and anti-Vietnam war activists under the Bureau’s Counter-Intelligence program or COINTELPRO.

Today the FBI’s covert surveillance of activists is not widely known or investigated by U.S. media outlets. Into this breach the group Defending Rights & Dissent just published a new report, titled, “Still Spying on Dissent: The Enduring Problem of FBI First Amendment Abuse.”  Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Chip Gibbons, the group’s policy and legislative counsel and author of the report, who summarizes the report’s findings, exposing a pattern of FBI abuses since 2010 and the urgent need for congressional oversight and intervention to end those abuses.

CHIP GIBBONS: Our report is just from 2010 to the present and we chose that as our starting date because you know, 2010 is a nice easy number. But also because in 2010, the Department of Justice inspector general released a report of FBI spying on domestic advocacy groups during the Bush years. And that’s the last major attempt at oversight of the FBI. And we’ve been pushing for greater oversight. And 2016, 2015, we got 131 groups and 88,000 people to sign petitions to Congress, asking them to investigate the FBI’s surveillance of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. And obviously, no oversight was forthcoming. So, we just really wanted to put this report together to really highlight the problem. I mean, almost every major social movement of the last decade has been spied on by yes, the FBI. Occupy Wall Street was spied on. Black Lives Matter was spied on. Standing Rock protesters were spied on, Students for Justice in Palestine.

You know, you can just name them one after the other and it’s a very serious problem. And I think it’s time that, you know, Congress starts to exercise some oversight abilities. And it’s also time that we sort of move the discussion away from treating these as isolated incidents. Like how did this happen? And to realize that when the FBI comes and knocks on the door of a Standing Rock protester that’s completely related to the fact that they conducted a counterterrorism investigation of Occupy Wall Street. It’s part of the same systemic problem of political surveillance.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What’s the comparison of the amount of resources and agents dedicated to surveilling white supremacists and far-right groups that had been engaged in unprecedented levels of violence in this country in recent years compared to the progressive organizations that you focus on in this report?

CHIP GIBBONS: It’s hard to say without actually having information about all of the FBI investigations, which is something that Congress can and should demand. But it seems very clear to me that the FBI is spending a disproportionate amount of resources on these left-wing progressive groups. Whenever there’s right-wing violence, the FBI always claims, “Oh, we don’t have enough authority. We were powerless to investigate them. We’re powerless to stop them.” And then you sort of turn around and look at what they’re doing the rest of the time and you’re like, “You have plenty of surveillance authority.” So I would say you’re right on the mark, that it is disproportionate.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And the very important point you raise in this report is your recommendation at the conclusion is that Congress must take up the mantle and investigate the FBI and find out what they’re up to in terms of political surveillance. Have you gotten any response from members of Congress, particularly the Democratic leadership in the House, that they also see this as an important duty that they must fulfill?

CHIP GIBBONS: Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a lot of desire to do oversight of the FBI in some time. Some of the narratives around Trump, the (inaudible) investigations around his associates have led people to sort of view the FBI as heroic and not wanting to challenge them. I have seen some pushback by the Congressional Black Caucus against the Black Identity Extremism report. I would say the Congress needs to go even farther than investigating. They need to impose a statutory charter on the FBI that clearly lays out and limits what their authorities are. Right now, the FBI has no such charter. Well, one was proposed in the late ’70s and they decided to let the executive branch self-regulate the FBI, which has been disastrous.

For more information. visit Defending Rights and Dissent at Download a copy of the group’s new report titled, “Still Spying on Dissent: The Enduring Problem of FBI First Amendment Abuse,” from Google Drive here.

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