If an Agent Knocks
Federal Investigators and Your Rights
Center for Constitutional Rights
- What is Political Intelligence?
- Do I have to talk to the FBI?
- Under what laws do the agents
- What federal agencies are likely
to be interested in a citizen's political activities and affiliations?
- How does the FBI learn about
citizens and organizations?
- What if I suspect surveillance?
- How should I respond to threatening
letters or calls?
- What rights do I have?
- What should I do if police,
FBI, or other agents appear with an arrest or search warrant?
- What should I do if agents
come to question me?
- If I don't cooperate, doesn't
it look like I have something to hide?
- Are there any circumstances
under which it is advisable to cooperate with an FBI investigation?
- How can grand juries make people
go to jail?
- Is there any way to prevent
grand jury witnesses from going to jail?
- What can lawyers do?
People opposing U.S. policies in Central America, giving
sanctuary to refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador, struggling for Black
liberation, and against nuclear weapons, are today more than ever likely
to receive visits from FBI agents or other federal investigators. Increasingly,
agents are also visiting the familist, friends, and employers of these
This pamphlet is designed to answer the most frequent questions asked
by people and groups experiencing government scrutiny, and to help them
develop practical responses.
What is Political Intelligence?
Political intelligence is information collected by the government about
individuals and groups. Files secure under the Freedom of Information Act
disclose that government officials have long been interested in all forms
of data. Information gathered by government agents ranges from the most
personal data about sexual liaisons and preferences to estimates of the
strength of groups opposing U.S. policies. Over the years, groups and individuals
have developed various ways of limiting the collection of information and
preventing such intelligence gathering from harming their work.
Do I have to talk to the FBI?
No. The FBI does not have the authority to make anyone answer questions
(other than name and address [see errata]),
to permit a search without a warrant, or to otherwise cooperate with an
investigation. Agents are usually lawyers, and they are always trained
as investigators; they have learned the power of persuasion, the ability
to make a person feel scared, guilty, or impolite for refusing their requests
for information. So remember, they have no legal authority to force people
to do anything -- unless they have obtained an arrest or search warrant.
Even when agents do have warrants, you still don't have to answer their
Under what laws do the agents operate?
In 1976, FBI guidelines regulating the investigation of political activities
were issued by Attorney General Edward H. Levi. Criticized by liberals and conservatives
alike, the guidelines were issued in the wake of a Congressional
committee's report of highly questionable activities by the FBI: monitoring
the activities of domestic political groups seeking to effect change. The report
exposed the FBI's counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO) under which the agency
infiltrated groups, compiled dossiers on, and directly interfered with individuals
engaged in activities protected by the First Amendment rights to freedom of expression
The FBI COINTELPRO program was initiated in 1956. Its purpose, as described
later by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, was "to expose, disrupt, misdirect,
discredit, or otherwise neutralize activities" of those individuals and organizations
whose ideas or goals he opposed. Tactics included: falsely labelling individuals
as informants; infiltrating groups with persons instructed to disrupt the group;
sending anonymous or forged letters designed to promote strife between groups;
initiating politically motivated IRS investigations; carrying out burglaries
of offices and unlawful wiretaps; and disseminating to other government agencies
and to the media unlawfully obtained derogatory information on individuals
In 1983, Attorney General William French Smith issued superseding guidelines
that authorized "domestic security/ terrorism" investigations against political
organizations whenever the FBI had a reasonable belief that these groups might
violate a law. The new guidelines permitted the same intrusive techniques the
FBI used against organized crime.
The Smith guidelines were justified by the Attorney General's observation
that "our citizens are no less threatened by groups which engage in criminal
violence for political... purposes that by those which operate lawlessly for
financial gain." He concluded: "we must ensure that criminal intelligence resources
that have been brought to bear so effectively in organized crime and racketeering
investigations are effectively employed in domestic security/ terrorism cases." The
guidelines provide, therefore, no safeguards to protect against infringements
of First Amendment rights.
Worst, they ignore the history of COINTELPRO abuses, and abolish the distinction
between regular criminal investigations and investigations of groups and individuals
seeking political change. They fail to limit the investigative techniques used
to obtain data on political groups, so that now the FBI may use any technique,
including electronic surveillance and informers, against political organizations.
Today, the FBI may begin a full investigation whenever there is a reasonable
indication that "two or more persons are engaged in an enterprise for the purpose
of furthering political or social goals wholly or in part through activities
that involve force or violence and a violation of the criminal laws of the
United States." The FBI has interpreted "force or violence" to include the
destruction of property as a symbolic act, and the mere advocacy of such property
destruction would trigger an investigation. Even without any reasonable indication,
under a separate guideline on "Civil Disorders and Demonstrations Involving
a Federal Interest," the FBI may investigate an organization that plans only
legal and peaceful demonstrations.
Another set of rules governing federal intelligence gathering is Executive
Order 12333, in force since 1981. It authorizes the FBI and CIA to infiltrate,
manipulate and destroy U.S.political organizations, as well as to use electronic
surveillance -- under the pretext of an international intelligence investigation.
What federal agencies are likely to be interested in a citizen's
political activities and affiliations?
The FBI is still the major national intelligence-gathering agency. There are
also many other federal, state, local and private investigative agencies. At
least 26 federal agencies may gather intelligence, including the Immigration & Naturalization
Service, Internal Revenue Service, and the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco and Firearms. Local police agencies
sometimes contain "special services" units and narcotics or other "strike
forces" in which federal, state, and local agencies cooperate. The Central Intelligence
Agency and National Security Agency are particularly active when a political
organization has or is suspected to have international contacts. Military security
agencies and increasingly significant "private" research institutes and security
agencies also gather intelligence.
A recent Freedom of Information Act request on behalf of the Livermore Action
Group, an anti-nuclear organization, revealed that the Navy, the U.S. Marshal's
Service, and the Marine Corps all sent agents to the Group's public meetings
and kept newspaper reports of such meetings. Most chilling was the revelation
that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) -- the federal agency charged
with implementing martial law in the event of a nuclear war -- was also watching
the Livermore group.
Federal and state, local and private agencies, all tend to share information
in a variety of ways.
How does the FBI learn about citizens and organizations?
Political intelligence is gathered from public sources, such as newspapers and
leaflets. It is also collected by informers who may be government employees or
people recruited by them. Political intelligence is also collected through FBI
visits to your home or office. We are here most concerned with this aspect of
Agents may be sent to interview people after FBI officials decide there is
a "reasonable indication" that an organization or person meets the guidelines
for a "domestic security" investigation. Such interviews are a primary source
of information, for most people are not aware of their right not to
talk to federal agents.
Most people are also unaware of the limits to the power of FBI and other investigative
agents. Many people visited by agents are also afraid of being rude or uncooperative.
Agents may be friendly and courteous, as if they are attempting to protect
you or your organization, or express admiration for your organization and its
goals. Occasionally, the FBI may persuade a disaffected member of an organization
to give them information about other members, including their personal lives,
character and vulnerabilities.
A major job of FBI agents is to convince people to give up their rights to
silence and privacy. For example, after a Quaker pacifist spoke in Anchorage,
Alaska, at a memorial Service for El Salvador's Archbishop Romero, FBI agents
visited a local priest and interrogated him about the speaker. The agents asked
about the speaker's organizational affiliations and expressed fears about "terrorist
connections." The agents informed the priest that they would do a "computer
check" on the speaker and his wife, and asked the priest if the two might do
violence to the U.S. President, scheduled to visit the area. These interrogations
were repeated in the community by agents who later admitted there was no basis
for their questions about "terrorist connections" and the danger to the President.
What if I suspect surveillance?
Prudence is the best course, no matter who you suspect, or what the basis of
your suspicion. When possible, confront the suspected person in public, with
at least one other person present. If the suspect declines to answer, he or she
at least now knows that you are aware of the surveillance. Recently, religious
supporters of a nation-wide call to resist possible U.S. intervention in Central
America noticed unfamiliar people lurking around their offices at 6 a.m., but
failed to ask what they wanted and who they were. If you suspect surveillance,
you should not hesitate to ask the suspected agents names and inquire about their
The events giving rise to suspicions of surveillance vary widely, but a general
principle remains constant: confront the suspected agents politely and in public
(never alone) and inquire of their business. If the answer does not dispel
your suspicion, share it with others who may be affected and discuss a collective
response. Do not let fears generated by "conspicuous" surveillance create unspoken
tensions that undermine your work and organization. Creating fear is often
the purpose of obvious surveillance. When in doubt, call a trusted lawyer familiar
with political surveillance. Please do not call the number that was printed
here as the Movement Support Network Hotline, because it is no longer active,
and is now the private residence of an unrelated person.
How should I respond to threatening letters or calls?
If your home or office is broken into, or threats have been made against you,
your organization, or someone you work with, share this information with everyone
affected. Take immediate steps to increase personal and office security. You
should discuss with your organization's officials and with a lawyer whether and
how to report such incidents to the police. If you decide to make a report, do
not do so without the presence of counsel.
What rights do I have?
- The Right to Work for Change. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
protects the rights of groups and individuals who advocate, petition, and
assemble to accomplish changes in laws, government practices, and even the
form of government Political intelligence gathering is not supposed to interfere
with these rights.
- The Right to Remain Silent. The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution provides
that every person has the right to remain silent in the face of questions
(other than name and address) posed by any police officer or government agent.
Since 1970, however, federal prosecutors may request judges to order a subpoenaed
witness to testify, after a grant of immunity, at a grand jury hearing
or at a criminal trial. This grant of immunity means that your Fifth Amendment
right to refuse to testify is taken away. What is given to you is only
the promise not to use your testimony against you in a subsequent criminal
prosecution. But you can still be charged with a crime. Failure to testify
after a grant of immunity is discussed on page 12 below.
- The Right to be Free from "Unreasonable Searches and Seizures." Without
a warrant, no government agent is allowed to search your home or office (or
any other place that is yours and private) You may refuse to let FBI agents
come into your house or into your workplace. unless they have a search warrant.
Politeness aside, the wisest policy is never to let agents inside. They are
trained investigators and will make it difficult for you to refuse to talk.
Once inside your home or office, just by looking around, they can easily
gather information about your lifestyle, organization, and reading habits.
The right to be free from "unreasonable searches and seizures" is based on
the Fourth Amendment lo the Constitution. This Amendment is supposed to protect
against government access lo your mail and other written communications,
telephone and other conversations. Unfortunately, it is difficult to detect
government interference with writings and conversations. Modern technology
makes it difficult to detect electronic surveillance on a telephone line,
other listening devices, or cameras that record whatever occurs in a room.
Also common are physical surveillance (such as agents following in car or
on foot), mail covers, and informers carrying tape recorders.
What should I do if police, FBI, or other agents appear
with an arrest or search warrant?
Agents who have an arrest or search warrant are the only ones you are legally
required to let into your home or office. You should ask to see the warrant before
permitting access. And you should immediately ask to call a lawyer. For your
own physical safety you should not resist, even if they do not show you the warrant,
or if they refuse to let you call your lawyer. To the extent permitted by the
agents conducting a search, you should observe the search carefully, following
them and making mental or written notes of what the agents are doing. As soon
as possible, write down what happened
and discuss it with your lawyer.
What should I do if agents come to question me?
Even when agents come with a warrant, you are under no legal obligation to tell
them anything other than your name and address. It is important, if agents try
to question you, not to answer or make any statements, at least not until after
you have consulted a lawyer.
Announce your desire to consult a lawyer, and make every reasonable effort
to contact one as quickly as possible. Your statement that you wish to speak
to the FBI only in the presence of a lawyer, even if it accomplishes nothing
else, should put an end to the agents' questions. Department of Justice policy
requires agents to cease questioning, or refrain from questioning, anyone who
informs them that he or she is represented by a lawyer. To reiterate: upon
first being contacted by any government investigator the safest thing to say
is, "Excuse me, but I'd like to talk to my lawyer before I say anything to
you." Or, "I have nothing to say to you. I will talk to my lawyer and have
her [or him] contact you." If agents ask for your lawyer's name, ask for their
business card, and say you will have your lawyer contact them. Remember to
get the name, agency, and telephone number of any investigator who visits you.
If you do not have a lawyer, call Movement Support Network Hotline (212) 477-5652,
or call the local office of the National Lawyers Guild.
As soon as possible after your first contact with an investigator, write a
short memo about the visit, including the date, time, location, people present,
any names mentioned by the investigators, and the reason they gave for their
investigation. Also include descriptions of the agents and their car, if any.
This may be useful to your lawyer and to others who may be contacted by the
After discussing the situation with your lawyer, you may want to alert your
co-workers, friends, neighbors, or political associates about the visit. The
purpose is not to alarm them, but to insure that they understand their rights.
It might be a good idea to do this at a meeting at which the history of investigative
abuse is presented.
If I don't cooperate, doesn't it look like I have something
This is one of the most frequently asked questions. The answer involves the nature
of political "intelligence" investigations and the job of the FBI. Agents will
try to make you feel that it will "look bad" if you don't cooperate with them.
Many people not familiar with how the FBI operates worry about being uncooperative.
Though agents may say they are only interested
in "terrorists" or protecting the President, they are intent on learning about
the habits, opinions, and affiliations of people not suspected of wrongdoing.
Such investigations, and the kind of controls they make possible, are completely
incompatible with political freedom, and with the political and legal system
envisaged by the Constitution.
While honesty may be the best policy in dealing with other people, FBI agents
and other investigators are employed to ferret out information you would not
freely share with strangers. Trying to answer agents' questions, or trying
to "educate them" about your cause, can be very dangerous -- as dangerous as
trying to outsmart them, or trying to find out their real purpose. By talking
to federal investigators you may, unwittingly, lay the basis for your own prosecution
-- for giving false or inconsistent information to the FBI. It is a federal
crime to make a false statement to an FBI agent or other federal investigator. A
violation could even be charged on the basis of two inconsistent statements
spoken out of fear or forgetfulness.
Are there any circumstances under which it is advisable
to cooperate with an FBI investigation?
Never without a lawyer. There are situations, however, in which an investigation
appears to be legitimate, narrowly focused, and not designed to gather political
intelligence. Such an investigation might occur if you have been the victim of
a crime, or are a witness to civil rights violations being prosecuted by the
federal government. Under those circumstances, you should work closely with a
lawyer to see that your rights are protected while you provide only necessary
information relevant to a specific incident. Lawyers may be able to avoid a witness'
appearance before a grand jury, or control the circumstances of the appearance
so that no one's rights
How can grand juries make people go to jail?
After being granted immunity and ordered to testify by a judge, grand jury witnesses
who persist in refusing to testify can be held in "civil contempt." Such contempt
is not a crime, but it results in the witness being jailed for up to 18 months,
or the duration of the grand jury, whichever is less. The purpose of the incarceration
is to coerce the recalcitrant witness to testify. In most political cases, testifying
before a grand jury means giving up basic political principles, and so the intended
no effect -- witnesses continue to refuse to testify.
Witnesses who, upon the request of a grand jury, refuse to provide "physical
exemplars" (samples of handwriting, hair, appearance in a lineup, or documents)
may also be jailed for civil contempt, without having been granted immunity.
The charge of "criminal contempt" is also available to the government as a
weapon against uncooperative grand jury witnesses. For "criminal contempt" there
is no maximum penalty -- the sentence depends entirely on what the judge thinks
is appropriate. Charges of criminal contempt are still rare. They have been
used, however, against Puerto Rican independentistas, especially those
who have already served periods of incarceration for civil contempt.
Is there any way to prevent grand jury witnesses from going
There is no sure-fire way to keep a grand jury witness from going to jail. Combined
legal and community support often make a difference, however, in whether a witness
goes to jail and, if so, for how long. Early awareness of people's rights to
refuse to talk to the FBI may, in fact, prevent you from receiving a grand jury
subpoena. If the FBI is only interested in getting information from you, but
not in jailing you, you may not receive
a grand jury subpoena.
What can lawyers do?
A lawyer can help to ensure that government investigators only do what they are
authorized to do. An attorney can see to it that you do not give up any of your
rights. If you are subpoenaed to a grand jury your lawyer can challenge the subpoena
in court, help to raise the political issues that underlie the investigation,
and negotiate for time. Your lawyer can also explain to you the grand jury's
procedures and the legal consequences or your acts, so that you can rationally
decide on your response.
A law enforcement official can only obtain your name and address if he or she
has a reasonable suspicion to believe that you have committed or are about to
commit a crime [note
#2]. Thus, if an FBI agent knocks at your door you do not have to identify
yourself to him; you can simply say "I don't want to talk to you," or "You'll
have to speak to my lawyer," and then close the door. An FBI agent, unlike a
local police officer, does not have jurisdiction to investigate violations of
First Edition published March 1985.
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) is a non-profit legal and educational
corporation dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the
United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human
Center for Constitutional Rights
853 Broadway, 14th Floor
NY, NY 10003
Contributions to the CCR are tax-deductible.
Additional copies or this publication can be ordered from the Center for Constitutional
Rights at the address above. Your comments about this publication will be appreciated
and will be useful in preparing future editions.
This pamphlet was prepared by The Movement Support Network with the help of
Linda Backiel, Joan Gibbs, Jonathan Ned Katz, Margaret L. Ratner, Audrey Seniors,
and Dorothy M. Zellner.
Photographs: Maddy Miller
- 1 See Final Report of the Senate Select Committee
to Study Governmental Operations, 94th Congress, 2d Session, Report
- 2 See e.g. United States v. Hensley, 83
L. Ed. 2d 604 (1985); Kolander v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352 (1983); Brown
v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47 (1979).