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Former Church Committee Investigator to Testify at Trial Against US Military Spying on Activists

Screen shot from Christopher Pyle’s appearance on “Democracy Now!” in June 2013

A former Church Committee investigator, former Army intelligence officer and a professor of constitutional law has agreed to be an expert witness in a lawsuit challenging domestic military spying against antiwar activists.

From 2006 to 2009, a group called the Port Militarization Resistance (PMR) in Olympia and Tacoma, Washington, organized demonstrations against the “use of civilian ports in Puget Sound for striker vehicles and other military cargo being shipped over to Iraq and then shipped to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” Some of these demonstrations included acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Thomas Rudd, head of Force Protection at Fort Lewis, sent in John Jacob Towery, a civilian employee of Force Protection, to infiltrate groups, build friendships, provide reports on what was happening and being planned, etc. Lists of individuals that needed to be targeted were made that included the targets’ license plate numbers. Activists were systematically harassed and there was a concerted effort to ensure targeted individuals were arrested over and over again and stopped multiple times.

In December 2012, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the lawsuit could proceed to trial, the first time a court had ever said civilians could sue the military for damages for spying on them while engaged in activism.

Christopher Pyle, the former Church Committee investigator, submitted an expert witness report indicating the testimony he would like to give during trial, which is currently scheduled for June 2.

“Towery and his superiors exceeded 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 US Army Intelligence Command and to destroy all its records on civilian politics,” Pyle declares.

The information collected by the Army resembles “mug books,” he adds, which back in the 1960s the Army used to keep track of people “who might cause trouble for the Army.” They contained “a picture, name, close associates,  and a political profile of each suspect person.”

Pyle recalls in 2005 NBC came to him with “more than 1,600 post-9/11 ‘suspicious activity reports’ prepared by Army intelligence for the Counterintelligence Field Activity Unit (CIFA). CIFA was a 1,000-man Pentagon unit of intelligence analysts.

He was asked to compare the reports from the program codenamed TALON to what he had investigated for two Senate committees in the 1970s.

After NBC Nightly News disclosed details of this program in 2006, TALON and the Field Activity Unit was allegedly shut down. But Pyle suggests the analysts—approximately 290 of them—simply linked up with state fusion centers in the United States at less cost and political risk to the government and continued to do work, which began in the Field Activity Unit.

Towery was involved in directing surveillance at US peace activists, not foreign intelligence activities. This is forbidden by the Posse Comitatus Act, Pyle notes.

There is also a clear attempt to conceal the Army’s involvement in the infiltration of protest groups by claiming the operations were conducted on behalf of civilian agencies. Yet, in 2007, Pyle highlighted how Towery was given a Certificate of Achievement from the Army for “outstanding duty.” It was an award for his work “reporting on activities of antiwar protesters.”

Towery infiltrated a conference at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington in 2008. He was paid overtime by the Army for his work, which Pyle points out is similar to what happened at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and exactly what Congress was promised would never happen again.

Larry Hildes, a lawyer arguing the case against defendants involved in domestic military spying, said he is “extremely pleased” to have “someone of Chris’ caliber” willing to give expert testimony at trial. He is able to make connections and put what the Army did against Port Militarization Resistance activists into historical context to explain why this was not an isolated incident.

That is “really important,” Hildes said. COINTELPRO—the FBI program which targeted activists—”did not stop. It just took different forms.”

It goes all the way back to the Knights of Labor in the 1870s and 1880s. And, in the expert witness report submitted to the court, Pyle briefly summarizes this history of military spying:

…From World War I, Army intelligence partnership with the Justice Department and the American Protective League in anticipation of a Bolshevik Revolution in the US (War Plans White); to World War II (loyalty police, surveillance of president’s wife); through the Cold War (security clearance investigations and NSA), civil rights and anti-war movements (Operations GARDEN PLOT, STEEP HILL, CABINET MAKER, CABIN GUARD), infiltration of demonstrations (and sowing of disinformation), use of a bogus news organization at 1968 Democratic National Convention, the FBI round-up lists, FBI COINTELPRO harassment of protesters (leading to fatalities);  the CIA CHAOS program; NSA watchlists, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (from Church Committee findings; and to the present day of post 9/11 investigations of “suspicious activities” (SARs), Northern Command’s collaboration with state fusion centers; post 9/11 bulk seizure of virtually all domestic American phone calls, metadata and emails by NSA; disregard by NSA of probable cause requirement of the Fourth Amendment (Snowden documents), the US military has had a long history of spying on citizen politics…

One will notice Pyle mentions the Snowden documents in his summary of history of US military spying on “citizen politics.” According to Hildes, those involved in the case are looking for evidence that the NSA was involved in spying on the activists.

“We don’t know. We’re looking for that. I would be shocked if they were not but I don’t have any proof of that yet,” Hildes said.

“Fort Lewis had its own fusion cell. We don’t know who they were communicating with. Civilian law enforcement with the Army had a fusion center that they were working through, the Washington Fusion Center,” Hildes explained.

McGwire Air Force Base in New Jersey had a Port Militarization Resistance Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) task force. “We don’t know why there was a PMR SDS task force at an Air Force Base almost 3,000 miles away,” he added. “It’s clear this stuff was being shared throughout the military.”

Hildes maintained it is “impossible given the pervasiveness of NSA spying and given the pervasiveness of this stuff that they weren’t working with each other.” Though, there is not yet proof that the NSA was involved.

In his expert witness report to the court, Pyle states:

…The Army and National Guard intelligence groups all work and within many of the fusion centers set up around the country. In the 1970s, bureaucratic jealousies limited interagency cooperation and functioned as a kind of checks and balances. But now cooperation has blurred the lines between state and federal authority, and between military and civilian jurisdictions in way that would have alarmed the Founders. Today, scores of federal and state agencies have become all part of a huge, secret surveillance network, effectively circumventing Fourth Amendment protections against unlimited search and seizure…

Pyle argues in “all his research and experience intelligence agencies have never been content to secure facilities and operations; they must imagine conspiracies and exaggerate threats.” They also have an animus toward protest groups criticizing their activities. This is what contributed to operations, which likely included repeated stops and false arrests of individuals.

Attorneys for Towery and other defendants in the case tried to prevent Pyle from being an expert witness at trial, but Hildes said he has been cleared and will be testifying.

Over the holidays, nearly 10,000 pages of documents from the Army, which are sealed and cannot be made public, were given to lawyers. They had been trying to obtain these documents since April of last year.

“We’re going through them now to figure out what we’re going to ask the court to remove the protective order on because we think there are things in there that have nothing to do with national security that should be public and I can’t tell you what,” Hildes explained.

It has been a “real struggle” to obtain documents for the discovery process of the lawsuit. Each set of responses to discovery requests has taken months and months to get. Towery’s attorneys have insisted requests were made to the Army for documents when that was not the case, prolonging litigation. There’s a lot that Hildes said lawyers involved are still waiting to receive so they are prepared for trial.

For recent interview “Democracy Now!” did with Pyle in June, go here.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."