WASHINGTON — The FBI is monitoring groups on the border that are protesting U.S. immigration policy, according to a document obtained by Yahoo News.
The FBI has gathered intelligence from people with “direct access” to the organizations and is monitoring their social media, according to the document, called an “external intelligence note,” that was obtained by Yahoo News. The note, which was produced by the FBI office in Phoenix and sent to other law enforcement and government agencies, said there are indications these groups are “increasingly arming themselves and using lethal force to further their goals.” However, almost all of the evidence cited in the report involved nonviolent protest activity.
The intelligence collected and cited in the FBI document, dated May 30, 2019, is worrisome to activists and civil rights advocates who say that the government is classifying legitimate government opposition and legally protected speech as violent extremism or domestic terrorism.
“The document raises potential legal concerns in a gray area not yet tested by the courts,” Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor, told Yahoo News.
“If you’re investigating antiwar and anti-Trump groups, you run the risk of interfering with free speech rights,” said Stone, who was tapped by President Barack Obama to help review foreign intelligence surveillance programs following the Edward Snowden disclosures.
In a statement to Yahoo News, an FBI spokesperson described the external intelligence note about border protest groups as part of routine information sharing among law enforcement agencies, and emphasized that it contained the perspective of the Phoenix office.
“These products are intended to be informative in nature,” the FBI spokesperson said, “and as such, they contain appropriate caveats to describe the confidence in the sourcing of information and the likelihood of the assessment. Additionally, when written at a local level, these products will note that the perspective offered may be limited to the field office’s area of responsibility.”
While the external intelligence note was originally generated by the FBI’s Phoenix office, it was distributed widely throughout the bureau and to other law enforcement agencies around the country.
Mike German, a former FBI special agent and fellow at New York University who has written extensively about surveillance of activists, sees the document as evidence of the bureau’s overreach when it comes to classifying domestic groups as terrorist threats.
“It’s been a feature of the post-9/11 counterterrorism effort by the FBI to focus on nonviolent civil disobedience and to prioritize it,” said German. “For several years after 9/11, the FBI called environmental activists the No. 1 domestic terror threat, even though there’s not a single homicide related to environmental ‘terrorists’ in the United States.”
The Justice Department, which first created guidelines for domestic investigations during the mid-1970s amid fallout from law enforcement’s response to the antiwar movement, has modified those policies over the years. In response to a series of questions about the authority under which it can investigate border protest groups, the FBI referred Yahoo News to the most recent publicly available guidelines posted on the bureau’s website. Those guidelines, which predate the Trump administration, specify that any investigations must be “conducted within Constitutional and statutory parameters and that civil liberties and privacy are protected.”
Despite the procedures that are in place, there have been issues with the FBI’s investigation of domestic protest groups in the past. German, the former special agent and legal expert, cited a report from the FBI’s inspector general that was released in 2010 and criticized the bureau for classifying nonviolent crimes related to protest as “terrorism.”
That report found that the factual basis for opening some of the investigations into advocacy groups, including PETA and Greenpeace, was factually weak, with little indication of any possible federal crimes. The FBI had also designated some investigations relating to nonviolent civil disobedience under its “Acts of Terrorism” classification.
What constitutes an extremist threat is the subject of ongoing debate. Some left-wing organizations have, in fact, been associated with violent attacks against opponents. Critics have pointed out, however, that such groups present less of a threat than some of those on the right, including white supremacists, who were involved in the majority of domestic terror incidents last year.
Yahoo News spoke to three of the activists specifically cited in the FBI’s note. They said they were not surprised to learn that the FBI is monitoring them, because of prior indications that law enforcement has been investigating recent protest activity as well as the U.S. government’s history of policing liberal activism.
Corey Lemley, a self-described “antifascist” activist in Tennessee whose Twitter activity was included in the FBI report, said he knew he was on the government’s radar because he was previously visited by federal authorities at his home after he helped organize counterprotests against neo-Nazi rallies in Tennessee last year. He also pointed to the government’s record of surveilling activists.
“Understanding the history of this country, you’d have to be naive to be surprised,” Lemley said. “This is nothing new.”
The FBI intelligence note described the border protest activity as coming from “anarchist extremists.” Though it specified that the analysis was written by the FBI’s Phoenix office and does not necessarily reflect the bureau’s national perspective, the note showed that, at least in Arizona, the bureau is tracking border protest groups and labeling them a source of potential violence.
The note also provided indications of how other U.S. law enforcement agencies, especially the Department of Homeland Security, are tracking border protests around the country.
“FBI Phoenix assesses anarchist extremists (AEs) very likely are increasing the targeting of U.S. Government … law enforcement personnel and facilities along the Arizona border, increasing the risk of armed conflict,” the note said. “FBI Phoenix also assesses Arizona-based AEs likely are increasingly arming themselves and using lethal force to further their goals and in confrontations with ideologically opposed groups.”
The note tied the potential for increased protest activity — and, by extension, violence — to opposition to President Trump’s immigration policies. With immigration issues unlikely to be resolved soon, it said the anarchist extremist “threat to Arizona likely will grow in intensity and frequency.”
The note went on to show some of the evidence behind these conclusions, citing two separate reports from the Department of Homeland Security that identified posts written by activists online, including one that called for actions to disturb the “daily operations of the border, by fighting ICE and the border industrial complex.”
It also cited a tweet written in May by Corey Lemley, the activist in Tennessee. “Every ICE detention center shall be taken over, with ICE employees detained until every immigrant is freed,” Lemley wrote.
Lemley, who is a 28-year-old videographer, told Yahoo News his tweet was not meant to be a threat and he does not advocate “proactive” violence.
“The resistance is going to take many shapes and many different forms,” said Lemley. “Right now, we do not have any plans to have an armed rebellion or armed resistance against the state.”
There are photos of Lemley holding guns on his personal Facebook page. However, he said all the pictures showed him in “legal possession” and did not indicate any threat.
“Nothing that you don’t see a redneck post on a daily basis,” he said.
The FBI Phoenix note also pointed to an online magazine with a timeline of border protest activity that was published on what it called an “anarchist extremist” website in February. The FBI Phoenix office, citing less than 20 words from the magazine, said this timeline was designed to aid a “trajectory of rebellion” against U.S. border policy and that it encouraged readers to identify “relevant targets in your town.”
Based on the date and quotes cited by the note, the FBI seems to be referring to a post on the activist website It’s Going Down, which linked to the online magazine. Despite the use of language like “attacks” and “targets,” almost all of the actions described in the magazine are nonviolent civil disobedience.
The Phoenix FBI’s intelligence note cited less than 20 words from a document that is 20 pages long and covers 50 events; the vast majority of them involve nonviolent protest tactics like hanging banners and posters, blocking streets and Border Patrol cars, and marches, including one that was hosted by a local Presbyterian church. Eight of the incidents described in the timeline involved more dangerous behavior, including vandalism and skirmishes at protests.
Yahoo News emailed It’s Going Down and received a response from someone who would not give their name but wrote that the post cited by the FBI made “no direct calls to physical violence.”
The person argued that the FBI is “attempting to build a false narrative around the threat of violence against the public coming from the #AbolishICE movement.” They further suggested the government is exaggerating the threat from the left-wing protest movement while minimizing the dangers associated with far-right and white supremacist groups.
The FBI document also said the bureau was tracking “an Arizona-based left-wing militia-like group” identified as the Border Liberation Front. According to the note, the FBI was told about the group’s activities from a “human source with direct access.” However, while the note implied the group was armed, it also indicated that the Border Liberation Front’s activities are largely nonviolent and described the group as dedicated to “monitoring various U.S. Border Patrol activities, right-wing militia groups, and other groups favoring the border wall, mostly to expose human rights abuses.”
In the document, the Border Liberation Front was linked to alleged planning efforts to disrupt U.S. border security operations and the building of a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. The group’s activities, in fact, were identified as being “most critical” to the FBI’s conclusion that extremist border protest groups were “increasingly arming themselves and using lethal force.”
A woman who answered a phone number associated with the Border Liberation Front but would not identify herself by name, said the group recently split into two, and the other organization is called Caravan Support Network.
While the Caravan Support Network was not named in the FBI Phoenix note, the woman said she believes the FBI is monitoring it rather than the Border Liberation Front. There are multiple links between the social media pages of the Border Liberation Front and the Caravan Support Network. None of the pages for either group viewed by Yahoo News contain indications of violent activity.
The woman associated with the Border Liberation Front said she was not surprised to hear about FBI monitoring, because people associated with the Caravan Support Network were on a list of activists and journalists who were in a government database revealed by NBC in March.
The FBI document claimed the Border Liberation Front organizers “planned for camps in Texas and Arizona to serve as staging platforms for on-site armed support of the migrant caravans” and “intended to purchase firearms from a Mexico-based cartel associate.” But the woman who spoke to Yahoo News said all of Border Liberation Front’s activities are humanitarian.
“All we do is just raise funds and then make sure those that are seeking asylum have the things that they need, clothes and food,” the woman said.
The FBI note also said a “human source with direct access” described an “Antifa training seminar” that took place in Flagstaff, Ariz., last April and allegedly involved firearms. “The trainers had on display various firearms, among them AR-15s, AK-47s, and handguns,” the note said.
An event matching the description in the FBI note was hosted by Taala Hoogan, an Arizona group that describes itself as an “Anti-colonial & Anti-capitalist Community Space.” Advertisements for the event show that it included a workshop on “armed defense.” Taala Hoogan did not respond to a request for comment.
The FBI document also cited information received via a public tip line about the group Redneck Revolt, a national left-wing organization that describes itself as dedicated to “community defense.” The FBI said the tipster noted that the group has raised money “for firearms purchases” and has offered to “act as armed security for various protests.”
The group often maintains a visible armed presence at protests. Redneck Revolt’s Phoenix chapter, which is also called the John Brown Gun Club, did not respond to a request for comment on this story, but a member of the group had spoken to Yahoo News at a protest outside a Trump rally in 2017.
“We’re a community defense organization, so we’re here to provide security and make sure nobody is attacked by white nationalists or fascists,” said the man, who was carrying a rifle.
The Phoenix FBI’s note addressed the possibility that left-wing border protest groups would mainly use weapons for defensive purposes. However, this “alternative hypothesis” was rejected in the note “based on direct human source reporting detailing various [anarchist extremist] groups’ plans for ‘direct action’ and ‘offensive postures.’”
German, the former FBI special agent, said that even if some activists are armed, that’s not evidence they are a terror threat. “Congress passed a definition of domestic terrorism. It requires illegal activities harmful to human life,” German said. “I’m not aware of any fatal attacks committed by somebody associated with an antifascist movement.”
Nate Snyder, who served in the Department of Homeland Security and as an adviser to the Justice Department during the Obama administration, described the document as “kind of a head scratcher.” Snyder, who reviewed a copy provided to him by Yahoo News, said the sourcing and evidence in the intelligence note were unusually thin. “Why would they put out something out there to the field with that lack of confidence and numerous unvalidated sources?” he asked.
Snyder also questioned why the FBI would be including antifascist groups, anarchist extremists and militia organizations together.
“From an analyst’s perspective, those are three very different groups,” he said.
For his part, German argued that the bureau should be focusing on clear threats rather than speculating about potential dangers from left-wing protest groups.
“There are people out there actually harming other people, and that’s where the counterterrorism resources should be devoted,” he said, “not toward people who are simply challenging government policy,”
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