Is the FBI tracking online protesters?

A subpoena asking for the Independent Media Center's Web server logs sparks charges of government-
sponsored intimidation.

Topics: FBI,

On April 21, protesters from across the U.S. and Canada were gathering in Quebec to protest the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit meeting. While police amassed tear gas and riot gear, protesters hatched plans to take down a two and a half mile-long fence erected to keep them out of sight and sound during the meeting.

At the same time, thousands of miles away in Seattle, activities at the Independent Media Center were winding down after a long day of coordinating a joint protest in Blaine, Wash. Only around three people were left in the office at 7 p.m. when a knock came at the door.

“FBI agents came in and flashed their badges,” recalls Devin Theriot-Orr, an IMC volunteer and legal team co-coordinator. “They wanted to ask us some questions. You don’t get visits from the FBI every day, so people were definitely pretty freaked out.”

The FBI agents wanted to see “all user connection logs” from the IMC’s Web site from a period between April 20 and 21. Within that time, the agents charged, someone had posted secret, stolen documents — one of which was said to contain details of President Bush’s travel itinerary in Canada — on the IMC’s News Wire bulletin boards.

The sealed demand to turn over the logs also contained a gag order: If news of the FBI demand made it out of the IMC office, the organization faced being held in contempt of court. Somehow, the entirely volunteer-run organization, with dozens of offices around the world and a busy network of online message sites, would have to keep the secret.

IMC volunteers searched the site for the offending documents in vain. “We were unable to find anything that met their description,” says Devin. “What they told us was false — that it had to do with travel documents for the president.” What the IMC volunteers did find were two documents, purportedly stolen from a Quebec police car, that contained instructions given to Quebec police on how to deal with different protest scenarios, and crib sheets that described which protest groups were expected to be in action in Quebec and how they might be identified. One excerpt reads:

A first group of demonstrators may take Laurier Boulevard and Grande Allee street, while others may take Reni Livesque boulevard. The demonstrators will split into groups of 20 or 30 people in order to carry out different actions depending on the choice of their affinity groups. The signal to disperse will be releasing balloons into the air. The two groups may meet at Salaberry Street (or it could be another street) to continue via Reni Livesque towards the Grand Thiatre.

Despite IMC efforts to keep the order a secret, word got out and soon enough IMC visitors were posting anxious messages on the message boards, calling the FBI order a “raid” and worrying that the media organization had been “taken over” by Secret Service agents. IMC’s attempts to remove these posts had the adverse effect, as a report released by the organization later conceded, of “seemingly confirming the worst suspicions of independent journalists who posted brief articles announcing or speculating about mysterious and terrible things going on at the Seattle IMC, then finding their posts removed from view minutes later.”

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Barred by the gag order from putting rumors to rest, IMC volunteers had no choice but to wait it out. Six days later, on April 27, the gag order was lifted. Now IMC and its attorneys are preparing to fight.

“The IMC is making plans to challenge the subpoena,” says Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Now that the gag is lifted, we can go in and say the subpoena is invalid or unjustified, or all sorts of things.”

But oddly, points out Theriot-Orr, there has been no request by the FBI to remove the documents in question, which are still posted on the IMC site. “[The FBI agents] came down Saturday night when the information, technically, could still have been relevant. But they never asked us to remove it.” Now that the protests are over, the information isn’t as subversive as it seemed a week ago. At the IMC, the general feeling is that the FBI’s order was intended mainly to intimidate volunteers and posters on the Independent Media sites.

“I don’t think it was about the stuff that was posted,” says Theriot-Orr. “I’m certain they’ve been monitoring us for some time; we’ve been on their radar for a while, in my opinion, and I am very curious about whether this was taken to discourage association with the IMC.”

If the FBI was trying to intimidate the IMC, the tactic appears to be working, says Theriot-Orr. “We’ve had significantly less posts on our Web site. And I think that’s partially because people are nervous. There’s a history of this type of COINTELPRO activity against activist organizations that stretches back 30, 40 years. It’s nothing new. And we don’t really know — maybe there’s a bona fide investigation — but it sure seems suspicious.”

Calls to Stephen Schroeder, the assistant U.S. attorney who filed the application for the court order, were not returned.

Whether or not intimidation is at issue in this instance, the IMC case has broad significance for the future of online media and freedom of speech, says EFF’s Tien. “There’s a lot of law about how the First Amendment protects membership lists of political groups. Freedom of association, anonymous political speech — all these different threads weave together in this case.”

Amy Standen is a writer living in Oakland, Calif.

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