William Petroski / Des Moines Register and Tribune – 2009-05-19 00:23:37
DES MOINES (May 17, 2009) — An FBI informant and an undercover Minnesota sheriff’s deputy spied on political activists in Iowa City last year before the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.
Confidential FBI documents obtained by The Des Moines Register show an FBI informant was planted among a group described as an “anarchist collective” that met regularly last year in Iowa City. One of the group’s goals was to organize street blockades to disrupt the Republican convention, held Sept. 1-4, 2008, where US Sen. John McCain was nominated for president.
The undercover Minnesota deputy who traveled to Iowa City was from the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department, which infiltrated a group known as the “RNC Welcoming Committee” that was coordinating convention protest activities in St. Paul.
The undercover officer accompanied two activists from the Twin Cities who attended the University of Iowa in April 2008 for a Midwest campus anti-war conference.
The Iowa City Police Department was not aware that an FBI informant was monitoring local anti-war activists last year, Police Chief Samuel Hargadine said. But he confirmed to the Register that he was notified by Ramsey County authorities last year that they were sending an undercover officer to Iowa City.
Authorities said about 800 convention protesters were arrested last September in St. Paul, although most charges have since been dismissed.
About 3,700 police officers — many in riot gear and some on horses — used tear gas, pepper spray and other methods to control protesters and quell disturbances. Demonstrators shattered glass windows at retail stores, and some threw feces and urine at police, authorities said.
About 25 members of Iowa City activist groups participated in the St. Paul demonstrations, but Iowa organizers said they were aware of only one Iowa City demonstrator who was arrested. Those charges were subsequently dropped.
A key focus of the protests was anti-war sentiment, but the activists had other causes, such as environmental issues and helping poor people. Most of the Iowa City activists did not attend the Democratic National Convention held in Denver, Colo.
ACLU: Is Spying’s Focus Safety — or Politics?
The use of undercover informants to spy on political dissidents is a contentious issue. Law enforcement officials contend it is sometimes necessary, but civil libertarians are wary of such tactics as potentially violating people’s constitutional rights.
The FBI documents provide in-depth descriptions of more than a dozen Iowa political activists. This includes personal information such as names, height, weight, place of employment, cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses. The documents also include individuals’ plans for the convention demonstrations. Some of the surveillance occurred when the activists met last year at the Iowa City Public Library.
The FBI documents show the investigative reports were written in August 2008 by Special Agent Thomas Reinwart, who is assigned to Cedar Rapids, based on reports from a “confidential human source” in Iowa City.
FBI spokeswoman Sandy Breault in Omaha declined to talk about the documents or whether the agency used undercover informants to conduct surveillance on anti-war groups in Iowa City.
Randall Wilson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, obtained copies of FBI documents involving surveillance of the Iowa City activists independently of the Register.
Wilson said he believes the FBI was “ostensibly investigating the possibility that some of these people might cross the line and engage in civil disobedience.”
But, he said, “My main concern is that they were really spying on people who were in the political opposition.”
Protest Participants Denounce Monitoring
Russell Porter, director of the Iowa Department of Public Safety’s Intelligence Bureau, declined to comment specifically on whether law enforcement officers monitored Iowa political activists who planned protests at the Republican National Convention. But, he added, “If people are planning criminal activity, we would be interested in having people report that information to us and share that with us.”
Porter, who coordinates Iowa law enforcement intelligence efforts with local, state and federal agencies, said routine Iowa political activities are not the focus of undercover investigations. “When this work is done well, it keeps the community safe. But central to it is ensuring that we adhere and follow a solemn obligation to protect those principles enumerated in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution,” he said.
David Goodner, 28, a University of Iowa senior who participated in the demonstrations in St. Paul, condemned the undercover surveillance.
“There is no justification for spying on nonviolent pacifist groups,” Goodner said. “Our road blockade at the RNC and our peaceful preparations beforehand are protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. We have the right to speak out against the policies of our government. The criminalization of dissent and militarization of society are the actions of a police state, and they take valuable resources away from providing for unmet social needs. The FBI’s motives and methods are extremely unethical and go against basic American values.”
Robert “Ajax” Ehl, 39, of Iowa City, who also participated in the Republican convention protests in St. Paul, said he was surprised to learn afterward that the FBI had used an informant to monitor political activists in Iowa City. “It’s pretty ridiculous to be watching small peace groups in Iowa,” Ehl said. “There are not a lot of bomb throwers in Iowa City.”
FBI Report Describes Appearances, Interests
The FBI documents described the Iowa City political activists as aligning themselves with one of three “risk” zones in preparing for the Republican National Convention. Some members were interested in protest activities and involvement in “affinity groups,” such as a legal collective, a medic group and a media group. Others were described as peaceful protesters. But a third unit of activists was willing to risk arrest and potential involvement in criminal activities, according to the documents.
Individual names of protesters were blacked out of the copy of the FBI documents obtained by the Register, but the dossiers included personal facts. For example, one woman was described as white, 5 feet 10 inches, 140 pounds, with blond hair and glasses. The report said she lived in Cedar Rapids, and it provided her cell phone number. She was characterized as a member of a specific subgroup who had interests in medic training and as a legal observer.
“She drives a little, dark green four door hatchback,” the report said. A white man in his 20s who had recently moved to Iowa from Mississippi was also profiled by the FBI informant. “He is planning on attending the RNC and participating with the ‘Queer Block’ and ‘Bash Back,’ which are groups affiliated with the lesbian, bi-sexual, gay and transgender movement. Several hundred people associated with these two groups plan on doing their own thing and blocking an unknown (intersection),” the document said.
The report told of a protest strategy at the Republican National Convention known as “swarm, seize and stay,” which would involve thousands of demonstrators. This included a mass text-messaging program through cell phones of participants to coordinate the locations.
Activists Say “Jason” Likely Was Informant
In late August, before the Republican convention, authorities conducted a series of raids in Minneapolis and St. Paul as a pre-emptive strike against disruptive protests.
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher told reporters that the raids targeted the RNC Welcoming Committee, which he described as a “criminal enterprise” intent on blockading and disabling delegate buses, breaching venue security and injuring police officers. Authorities said they seized items that included buckets of urine, a gas mask, bolt cutters, axes, slingshots and spikes for puncturing bus tires.
Eight organizers of the RNC Welcoming Committee still face felony charges of conspiracy to riot and conspiracy to commit criminal damage to property. None of the eight is from Iowa. Separately, two men from a Texas group that went to St. Paul to protest the convention have pleaded guilty to federal charges after being accused of making Molotov cocktails – gasoline-filled bottles with wicks. Prosecutors said the two men intended to used the incendiary devices to hurt police or destroy property.
Political activists Ehl and Goodner said they believe they know the identity of the FBI informant who spied on the Iowa City protesters. They say it was a young man from Michigan named “Jason” who claimed he was a US military conscientious objector. He told people he had been discharged from the Air Force after he objected to being deployed to Iraq. The man hung out with Iowa City activists for months, sharing beers and meals with them while expressing solidarity with their political beliefs.
Goodner and Ehl said “Jason” later admitted that he provided information to the FBI in exchange for money.__”It is my understanding that he just took money because he was unemployed,” Ehl said.
Looking back, the surveillance in Iowa City may have begun as early as the fall of 2007, Goodner said. He and three others from Iowa City traveled to St. Paul for a meeting with the RNC Welcoming Committee. A few weeks later, “Jason” started coming to their meetings in Iowa City.
“We didn’t think anything of it,” said Goodner, who was the Midwest regional coordinator for the Campus Antiwar Network and is a past member of the Register’s Young Adult Board of Contributors.
Undercover Officer Came to Iowa City
Hargadine, the Iowa City police chief, said he was not told the gender or identity of the undercover officer from Ramsey County. But political activists in Iowa City and Minnesota have said she was a middle-aged woman known by the pseudonym “Norma Jean Johnson.”
She attended the Campus Antiwar Network Midwest Regional Conference, held April 18-20, 2008, at the University of Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. About 150 people from Iowa and other states attended.
The Star Tribune of Minneapolis has reported that “Norma Jean Johnson” was Ramsey County Deputy Sheriff Marilyn Hedstrom, who infiltrated the RNC Welcoming Committee. Ramsey County sheriff’s spokeswoman Holli Drinkwine confirmed last week that Hedstrom worked as an undercover officer who investigated the RNC Welcoming Committee.
But Drinkwine said she did not know whether Hedstrom had worked undercover in Iowa City. Hedstrom recently received a 2009 Excellence in Performance Award from the Minnesota Association of Women Police.
Political activist Goodner said he recalled seeing “Norma Jean Johnson” at the anti-war conference in Iowa City.
She accompanied two members of the RNC Welcoming Committee and she helped with a slide show, but she said little and left the speaking to others, he said. He said the woman stayed at a hotel rather than sleeping for free on somebody’s couch in Iowa City, which should have been a tip-off she wasn’t a typical political activist.
“Because she came down here with two people who we did know, we just trusted them,” Goodner said.
In US and Iowa
The FBI has a history of conducting surveillance on political groups in the United States and in Iowa.
Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI operated a counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO, which was aimed at infiltrating and disrupting dissident political organizations. The targets included foes of the Vietnam War and civil rights groups.
Civil liberties groups have expressed worries that since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, law enforcement agencies have used security concerns as reason to increase monitoring of law-abiding citizens and organizations.
In November 2003, the Polk County Sheriff’s Department sent two undercover officers to monitor an anti-war conference at Drake University in Des Moines. Sheriff’s officials said they had no plans to spy on the local peace movement. Instead, authorities wanted to learn about potential problems in a protest planned for the next day at Iowa National Guard headquarters in Johnston.
In February 2004, federal authorities launched an investigation into the November anti-war conference at Drake. They issued grand jury subpoenas to four peace activists and to the university, asking for records of a student law group that sponsored the event. Prosecutors also obtained a gag order on Drake employees.
Less than a week after the federal investigation became public, the US attorney’s office in Des Moines withdrew the gag order and the subpoenas without explanation._In August 2004, a young female FBI undercover informant from Florida named “Anna” attended an anarchist conference in Des Moines, where she met a California activist named Eric T. McDavid, according to federal court documents. She had reportedly been traveling throughout the country attempting to infiltrate protest groups and targeting young males, in particular, who had anarchist beliefs.
“Anna” was subsequently a key witness in a highly publicized trial in Sacramento, Calif., that led to the September 2007 conviction of McDavid, now 31, for conspiring to blow up a Northern California dam, a genetics lab, cell phone towers and other targets. FBI agents described the case as an eco-terrorism plot on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front. McDavid is now serving nearly a 20-year federal prison term. His defense lawyer has argued his client was a victim of entrapment by the FBI informant.
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