Army efforts to disrupt, neutralize peaceful protests are compared to the COINTELPRO-era tactics of the FBI
Tacoma, WA — Former Army intelligence officer, Church Committee investigator, and professor of constitutional law Christopher Pyle has provided an expert witness report in a widely-watched federal lawsuit brought by antiwar activists who were infiltrated and spied on by the military.
Pyle’s report, which was filed last month in the case Panagacos v. Towery, comes as new information is revealed about the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) used to spy on, “disrupt” and “neutralize” political dissidents from 1956 until 1971, when the program was finally exposed. Pyle’s report rests largely on his research and scholastic efforts over the years to analyze government counterintelligence programs with particular emphasis on investigating FBI operations for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, or Church Committee, in the mid-1970s. The Church Committee was responsible for a variety of Congressional reforms, such as establishing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which were supposed to have protected Americans from the type of spying disclosed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
The Panagacos case has helped expose not only COINTELPRO-type tactics still in use by federal and local law enforcement, but also the military’s direct and unlawful involvement. It was discovered through public records released in 2009 that over a 2-year period beginning in 2006, Army intelligence analyst John J. Towery (under the alias “John Jacob”) infiltrated and spied on the Olympia antiwar group Port Militarization Resistance (PMR) as well as several other organizations, including Students for a Democratic Society, the Industrial Workers of the World, and Iraq Veterans Against the War. Towery’s “intelligence” was passed on to the Washington State Fusion Center, a communications hub of local, state and federal law enforcement, and then used by local police to target activists for repeated harassment, preemptive and false arrest, excessive use of force, and malicious prosecution. Records also revealed that the fusion center disseminated “domestic terrorist” dossiers on some of the plaintiffs in advance of a 2007 Domestic Terrorism Conference held in Spokane.
In his report, Pyle pointed to “a long and well-documented pattern of military surveillance of anti-war groups like the Plaintiffs who were then subjected to arrest by civilian police in connection with their political, not criminal, activity.” Pyle called Towery’s infiltration “precisely the sort of work that Army intelligence did at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 and which it promised Congress it would never do again.” Pyle accused Towery and his superiors of “exceed[ing] their legal authority, which they should have known from Army regulations adopted during the Watergate era, when disclosures of similar spying on civilians forced the Army to abolish the U.S. Army Intelligence Command and to destroy all its records on civilian politics.”
Citing a violation of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which forbids the military to enforce civilian law on U.S. soil, Pyle argued that, “So long as Army intelligence can operate in secret, it has no reason to minimize privacy invasions…Nor does the intelligence bureaucracy punish excessive collection.” Based on his 35 years of research, Pyle concluded that, “[T]he Army targeted PMR and the other organizations because of bureaucratic overreach and perhaps because they were becoming persuasive with civilian port authorities.” The ports of Olympia and Grays Harbor have not accepted a military shipment since the protests ended at those locations in 2007.
Towery, who worked at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, not only coordinated his action with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, many of whom are named defendants in the Panagacos case, he also admitted to eavesdropping on a confidential, privileged attorney-client email listserv of criminal defendants and their legal counsel. Such conduct is considered a constitutional violation, but Towery also took sensitive information from the listserv vital to a pending criminal trial in 2007 and passed it on to fusion center officials who then transmitted it to prosecutors, forcing a mistrial in a case the defense was winning handily. The case was later dismissed for prosecutorial misconduct.
“The breadth and intensity of the spying by U.S. Army officials and other law enforcement agents is staggering,” said Larry Hildes, a National Lawyers Guild attorney who filed the lawsuit in 2009. “Profiling nonviolent antiwar activists as domestic terrorists and breaching confidential attorney-client communication should be alarming to most Americans,” Hildes continued. “Now, with these and other recent revelations, we can be certain that the political spying reforms established in the 1970s are impotent in the face of the sprawling security apparatus we’ve developed in the U.S.” Public records recently obtained by activists indicate that the Army continued to spy on and target protesters until at least 2010, long after Towery’s identity was exposed.
The Obama Administration tried to dismiss the Panagacos lawsuit, but in a Ninth Circuit decision from December 2012 the court rejected the government’s arguments, ruling that allegations of First and Fourth Amendment violations were “plausible,” and ordered the case to proceed to trial. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven PMR members who sought to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through nonviolent civil disobedience and is being heard by U.S. District Court Judge Ronald B. Leighton. In addition to Towery, named defendants in Panagacos include Thomas Rudd, one of Towery’s superiors at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the U.S. Army, Navy, and Coast Guard, as well as certain officials within its ranks, the City of Olympia and its police department, the City of Tacoma and its police department, Pierce County, and various personnel from those jurisdictions.
Panagacos v. Towery is currently in the discovery stage and is scheduled to go to trial in June 2014.