In 2007, John Towery attended a conference on domestic terrorism in Spokane, Washington. There he distributed “domestic terrorist” dossiers that appeared to place Brendan Maslauskas Dunn and Jeffery Berryhill, two young activists who were members of Students for a Democratic Society in Olympia, into a terrorism index.
Dunn and Berryhill were anti-war activists, not terrorists, but their names and personal information were shared with police departments and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as part of a multi-agency effort to spy on anarchists and anti-war activists in Washington.
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At the time, Dunn considered Towery to be his friend. Dunn knew Towery as “John Jacob,” whom he would later describe as a “kind” and “generous” participant in the Port Militarization Resistance (PMR) campaign that protested military shipments to the Iraq war. In 2009, Dunn learned from a public records request he filed with the city of Olympia that “John Jacob” was actually John Towery, a criminal intelligence analyst on the payroll of the Army.
Towery, it turned out, had lied about his identity to infiltrate the activist community in Olympia and gather intelligence he shared with police departments, the FBI and a fusion center in Washington, according to documents obtained by activists and free speech advocates in a series of public information requests.
As wars waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, the PMR campaign in Washington organized sit-ins and protests at military ports to block shipments of equipment and weapons overseas. Activists pledged to remain nonviolent and have said that their actions constituted civil disobedience at worst, but they were often met by aggressive police crackdowns that resulted in dozens of arrests.
At the time, Towery worked as a civilian “criminal information” analyst for the Force Protection Division at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma. After attending the domestic terrorism conference in Tacoma, Towery sent an email to police officials and an FBI agent suggesting that they develop a “leftist / anarchist mini-group for intel sharing and distro.” Towery offered to share “zines,” “pamphlets” and online material that he used “on a regular basis” but warned that the material should not be distributed outside the group because that “might tip off groups that we are studying their techniques, tactics and procedures.”
The email, which was released for the first time this week after an Olympia-based activist uncovered it through a public information request, could help the activists prove that they were illegally targeted for their political beliefs in upcoming civil trial against Towery, his Army superior Thomas Rudd and several police departments.
“The latest revelations show how the Army not only engaged in illegal spying on political dissidents, it led the charge and tried to expand the counterintelligence network targeting leftists and anarchists,” said Larry Hildes, a National Lawyers Guild attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Dunn, Berryhill and several other PMR activists in 2010. “By targeting activists without probable cause, based on their ideology and the perceived political threat they represent, the Army clearly broke the law and must be held accountable.”
The lawsuit alleges that, under orders from the Army, Towery illegally infiltrated anti-war groups to disrupt activity protected under the First Amendment. The lawsuit also alleges that information Towery handed off to police officers led to the harassment and pre-emptive false arrest of several PMR activists, who were jailed in 2006 and charged with “attempted disorderly conduct” and criminal trespass after standing, singing and chanting outside on a street in front of the Port of Olympia entrance that had already been closed to traffic by police who were told by Towery that the activists would stage a sit-in.
The Army has denied the allegations routinely, and Towery originally claimed that he infiltrated anti-war groups in his spare time to help police officers. But troves of internal documents like the email released by activists this week have told a different story. An email released last year shows that Towery’s Army superiors approved overtime pay for Towery after he attended a weekend meeting with activists at Evergreen State College.
The recent Edward Snowden revelations have left many Americans shocked by the massive intelligence dragnet operated by the National Security Agency, but for anyone involved in the anti-war movement of the past decade, the revelations may come as no surprise. During the Bush administration, the FBI and other law enforcement agents routinely spied on and infiltrated peaceful groups organizing protests against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the names of peaceful activists often ended up on terrorism watch lists.
Monitoring of activists continued under the Obama administration, notably during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, when a Truthout investigation confirmed that the Department of Homeland Security kept tabs on Occupy protests across the country. Homeland Security documents, however, revealed an internal debate over its role in monitoring the Occupy movement, and the agency apparently refrained from wholesale surveillance and infiltration because of First Amendment concerns.
The Obama administration tried to dismiss the lawsuit against Towery and the other defendants, but last year the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that alleged violations of the Fourth and First Amendments were “plausible” and ordered the case to trial. The court threw out some of the activists’ broader allegations but ruled that the Army and law enforcement agencies can be sued for damages for spying on activists. Hildes has argued that, under the little-known Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, the military is prohibited from enforcing domestic laws on US soil. The trial is expected to begin in June.