Bugs, Taps And Infiltrators:

What To Do About Political Spying*

by Linda Lotz

Organizations involved in controversial issues -- particularly those who encourage or assist members to commit civil disobedience -- should be alert to the possibility of surveillance and disruption by police or federal agencies.

During the last five decades, many individuals and organizations were spied upon, wiretapped, their personal lives disrupted in an effort to draw them away from their political work, and their organizations infiltrated. Hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence from agencies such as the FBI and CIA were obtained by Congressional inquiries in the 1970’s headed by Senator Frank Church and Representative Otis Pike, others were obtained through use of the Freedom of Information Act and as a result of lawsuits seeking damages for First Amendment violations.

Despite the public outcry to these revelations, the apparatus remains in place, and the Reagan Administration gave back to federal agencies many of the powers they had abused.

Good organizers should be acquainted with this sordid part of American history, and with the signs that may indicate their group is the target of an investigation.

However, Do Not Let Paranoia Immobilize You.

The results of paranoia and overreaction to evidence of surveillance can be just as disruptive to an organization as an actual infiltrator or disruption campaign.

This document is a brief outline of what to look for -- and what to do if you think your group is the subject of an investigation. This is meant to suggest possible actions, and is not intended to provide legal advice. 

 

Possible evidence of government spying

Look for:

I. Visits by police or federal agents to politically involved individuals, landlords, employers, family members, or business associates. These visits may be to ask for information, to encourage or create possibility of eviction or termination of employment, or to create pressure for the person to stop his or her political involvement.

II.  Uniformed or plainclothes officers taking pictures of people entering your office or participating in your activities. Just before and during demonstrations and other public events, check the area including windows and rooftops for photographers. (Credentialing press can help to separate the media from the spies.)

III.  People who seem out of place.  If they come to your office or attend your events, greet them as potential members. Try to determine if they are really interested in your issues -- or just your members!

IV. People writing down license plate numbers of cars and other vehicles in the vicinity of your meetings and rallies.

Despite local legislation and several court orders limiting policy spying activities, these investigatory practices have been generally found to be legal unless significant "chilling" of constitutional rights can be proved.

 

Telephone problems

Electronic surveillance equipment is now so sophisticated that you should not be able to tell if your telephone conversations are being monitored. Clicks, whirrs, and other noises probably indicate a problem in the telephone line or other equipment.

For example, the National Security Agency has the technology to monitor microwave communications traffic, and to isolate all calls to or from a particular line, or to listen for key words that activate a tape recording device.  Laser beams and "spike" microphones can detect sound waves hitting walls and window panes, and then transmit those waves for recording. In these cases, there is little chance that the subject would be able to find out about the surveillance.

Among the possible signs you may find are:

V.  Hearing a tape recording of a conversation you, or someone else in your home or office, have recently held.

VI. Hearing people talking about your activities when you try to use the telephone.

VII.  Losing service several days before major events.

Government use of electronic surveillance is governed by several laws. Warrants for such surveillance can be obtained if there is evidence of a federal crime, such as murder, drug trafficking, or crimes characteristic of organized crime, or for the purpose of gathering foreign intelligence information available within the U.S. In the latter case, an "agent of a foreign power" can be defined as a representative of a foreign government, from a faction or opposition group, or foreign based political groups.

 

Mail problems

Because of traditional difficulties with the U.S. Postal Service, some problems with mail delivery will occur, such as a machine catching an end of an envelope and tearing it, or a bag getting lost and delaying delivery.

However, a pattern of problems may occur because of political intelligence gathering:

VIII.  Envelopes may have been opened prior to reaching their destination; contents were removed and/or switched with other mail. Remember that the glue on envelopes doesn't work as well when volume or bulk mailings are involved.

IX. Mail may arrive late on a regular basis different from others in your neighborhood.

X.  Mail may never arrive.

There are two kinds of surveillance permitted with regards to mail: the mail cover, and opening of mail. The simplest, and least intrusive form is the "mail cover" in which Postal employees simply list any information that can be obtained from the envelope, or opening second, third or fourth class mail. Opening of first class mail requires a warrant unless it is believed to hold drugs or audibly "ticks." More leeway is given for opening international mail.

 

Burglaries

A common practice during the FBI's Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) was the use of surreptitious entries of "black bag jobs." Bureau agents were given special training in burglary, key reproduction, etc. for use in entering homes and offices. In some cases, key could be obtained from "loyal American" landlords or building owners.

Typical indicators are:

XI. Files, including membership and financial reports are rifled, copied or stolen.

XII.  Items of obvious financial value are left untouched.

XIII.  Equipment vital to the organization may be broken or stolen, such as typewriters, printing machinery, and computers.

XIV.  Signs of a political motive are left behind, such as putting a membership list or a poster from an important event in an obvious place.

 

Although warrantless domestic security searches are in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and any evidence obtained this way cannot be used in criminal proceedings, the Reagan Administration and most recent Presidents (excepting Carter) have asserted the inherent authority to conduct searches against those viewed as agents of a foreign power.

 

Informers and Infiltrators

Information about an organization or individual can also be obtained by placing an informer or infiltrator. This person may be a police officer, employee of a federal agency, someone who has been charged or convicted of criminal activity and has agreed to "help" instead of serve time, a member of an organization or business, or anyone from the public.

Once someone joins an organization for the purposes of gathering information, the line between data gathering and participation blurs. Two types of infiltrators result -- someone who is under "deep cover" and adapts to the lifestyle of the people they are infiltrating. These people may maintain their cover for many years, and an organization may never know who these people are.  Agents "provocateur" are more visible, because they will deliberately attempt to disrupt or lead the group into illegal activities. They often become involved just as an event or crisis is occurring, and leave town or drop out after the organizing slows down.

An agent may:

XV.  Volunteer for tasks which provide access to important meetings and papers such as financial records, membership lists, minutes and confidential files.

XVI.  Not follow through or complete tasks, or else does them poorly despite an obvious ability to do good work.

XVII.  Cause problems for a group such as committing it to activities or expenses without following proper channels; urge a group to plan activities that divide group unity.

XVIII.  Seem to create or be in the middle of personal or political differences that slow the work of the group.

XIX.  Seek the public spotlight, in the name of your group, and then make comments or present an image different from the rest of the group.

XX.  Urge the use of violence or breaking the law, and provide information and resources to enable such ventures.

XXI.  Have no obvious source of income over a period of time, or have more money available than his or her job should pay.

XXII.  Charge other people with being agents, (a process called snitch-jackets), thereby diverting attention from him or herself, and draining the group's energy from other work.

These are not the only signs, nor is a person who fits several of these categories necessarily an agent. Be extremely cautious and do not call another person an agent without having substantial evidence. 

Courts have consistently found that an individual who provides information, even if it is incriminating, to an informer has not had his or her Constitutional rights violated. This includes the use of tape recorders or electronic transmitters as well.

Lawsuits in Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere (during the 1970’s and early 80’s), alleging infiltration of lawful political groups resulted in court orders limiting the use of police informers and infiltrators.  (Some of these have since been overridden in different venues.)  

If you find evidence of surveillance

XXIII.  Hold a meeting to discuss spying and harassment.

XXIV.  Determine if any of your members have experienced any harassment or noticed any surveillance activities that appear to be directed at the organization's activities.  Carefully record all the details of these and see if any patterns develop.

XXV.  Review past suspicious activities or difficulties in your group. Has/Have one or several people been involved in many of these events? List other possible "evidence" of infiltration.

XXVI.  Develop an internal policy on how the group should respond to any possible surveillance or suspicious actions.  Decide who should be the contact person(s), what information should be recorded, what process to follow during any event or demonstration if disruption tactics are used.

XXVII. Consider holding a public meeting to discuss spying in your community and around the country. Schedule a speaker or film discussing political surveillance. 

 

Actions to take now, before something happens:

 

XXVIII.  Make sure to protect important documents or computer disks, by keeping a second copy in a separate, secret location. Use fireproof, locked cabinets if possible. 

XXIX.  Implement a sign-in policy for your office and/or meetings. This is helpful for your organizing, developing a mailing list, and can provide evidence that an infiltrator or informer was at your meeting.

XXX.  Appoint a contact for spying concerns

This contact person or committee should implement the policy developed above and should be given to authority to act, to get others to respond should any problems occur.
The contact should:
  • Seek someone familiar with surveillance history and law, such as the local chapter of th National Lawyers Guild, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Conference of Black Lawyers or the American Friends Service Committee.  Brief them about your evidence and suspicions. They will be able to make suggestions about actions to take, as well as organizing and legal contacts.
  • Maintain a file of all suspected or confirmed experiences of surveillance and disruption. Include: date, place, time, who was present, a complete description of everything that happened, and any comments explaining the context of the event or showing what impact the event had on the individual or organization. If this is put in deposition form and signed, it can be used as evidence in court.
  • Under the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy act, request any files on the organization from federal agencies such as the FBI, CIA, Immigration and Naturalization, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, etc. File similar requests with local and state law enforcement agencies, if your state freedom of information act applies.

 

Prepare for major demonstrations and events

Plan ahead:

XXXI.  Brief your legal workers on appropriate state and federal statutes on police and federal officials spying. Discuss whether you anticipate photographers or videographers to be covering your event, and decide if you want to challenge any law enforcement or suspicious “free lance” journalists attempting to record those present at your event.

XXXII. If you anticipate surveillance, brief reporters who are expected to cover the event, and provide them with materials about past surveillance by your city's police in the past, and/or against other activists throughout the country.

XXXIII.  Tell the participants when surveillance is anticipated and discuss what the group's response will be.  Also, decide how to handle provocateurs, police violence, etc. and incorporate this into any affinity group, marshal or other training.

During the event:

XXXIV.  Carefully monitor the crowd, looking for surveillance or possible disruption tactics. Photograph any suspicious or questionable activities.

XXXV.  Approach police officer(s) seen engaging in questionable activities. Consider having a legal worker and/or press person monitor their actions.

 

If you suspect someone is an infiltrator:

XXXVI.  Try to obtain information about his or her background: where s/he attended high school and college; place of employment, and other pieces of history. Attempt to verify this information.

XXXVII. Check public records which include employment; this can include voter registration, mortgages or other debt filings, etc.

XXXVIII.  Check listings of police academy graduates, if available. 

Once you obtain evidence that someone is an infiltrator:

Internally:

XXXIX.  Confront him or her in a protected setting, such as a small meeting with several other key members of your group (and an attorney if available). Present the evidence and ask for the person's response. 

XL.  You should plan how to inform your members about the infiltration, gathering information about what the person did while a part of the group and determining any additional impact he or she may have had.

XLI.  You should consider contacting the press with evidence of the infiltration.

If you can only gather circumstantial evidence, but are concerned that the person is disrupting the group:

XLII. Hold a strategy session with key leadership as to how to handle the troublesome person.

XLIII.  Confront the troublemaker, and lay out how the person is disrupting the organization. Set guidelines for further involvement and carefully monitor the person's activities. If the problems continue, consider asking the person to leave the organization.

XLIV.  If sufficient evidence is then gathered which indicates she or he is an infiltrator, confront the person with the information in front of witnesses and carefully watch reactions.

 

If there is solid proof of a problem, request an investigation or make a formal complaint:

XLV.  Report telephone difficulties to your local and long distance carries. Ask for a check on the lines to assure that the equipment is working properly. Ask them to do a sweep/check to see if any wiretap equipment is attached (Sometimes repair staff can be very helpful in this way.) If you can afford it, request a sweep of your phone and office or home form a private security firm. Remember this will only be good at the time that the sweep is done.  

XLVI.  File a formal complaint with the U.S. Postal Service, specifying the problems you have been experiencing, specific dates, and other details. If mail has failed to arrive, ask the Post Office to trace the envelope or package.

XLVII. Request a formal inquiry by the police, if you have been the subject of surveillance or infiltration. Describe any offending actions by police officers and ask a variety of questions. If an activity was photographed, ask what will be done with the pictures. Set a time when you expect a reply from the police chief. Inform members of the City Council and the press of your request.

If you are not pleased with the results of the police chief's reply, file a complaint with the Police Board or another administrative body. Demand a full investigation. Work with investigators to insure that all witnesses are contacted. Monitor the investigation and response publicly to the conclusions.

XLVIII.  Initiate a lawsuit if applicable federal or local statues have been violated.

Before embarking on a lawsuit, remember that most suits take many years to complete and require tremendous amounts of organizers' and legal workers' energy and money.

XLIX.  Always notify the press when you have a good story

Keep interested reporters updated on any new developments. They may be aware of other police abuses, or be able to obtain further evidence of police practices.

Press coverage of spying activities is very important, because publicity conscious politicians and police chiefs will be held accountable for questionable practices.

 


This document was originally prepared for the Campaign to Stop Government Spying, later known as the Campaign for Political Rights, in 1979.   The Campaign was a DC-based coalition of 83 national and regional organizations committed to public education and legislative initiatives addressing the history and impact of government surveillance, disruption, and overthrow of governments outside the US.

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