Alleged evidence the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) used to obtain search warrants for raids on the homes of antiwar and international solidarity activists in the midwestern United States were unsealed. The files reveal a persistent effort by an undercover FBI agent to get activists to send money to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) so the government could charge them with material support for terrorism offenses.
The raids took place on September 24, 2010, in the cities of Chicago, Minneapolis and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Fourteen activists were subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury. The FBI alleged they had provided “material support” to “designated foreign terrorist organizations”; specifically, the PFLP and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Yet, more than three and a half years later, the activists have not been charged with any crimes. (Subsequently, nine other activists were issued grand jury subpoenas).
Jessica Sundin, one of the activists who was raided, subpoenaed and continues to live with the possibility of one day being charged, was part of the effort to unseal files the government had initially sealed indefinitely because this was a “terrorism” case. The activists wanted the files public to hopefully find out if the investigation into activists implicated was over or not. They also did not think it was right for the government to continue to keep this information secret.
From July 2008 to as late as May 31, 2010, an undercover FBI agent known to activists as “Karen Sullivan” infiltrated them as they prepared for a major antiwar demonstration at the 2008 Republican National Convention. She then became a member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO) and provided political intelligence to the FBI on how the organization’s private operations.
Sundin pointed out that the affidavit makes it seem like an undercover agent met someone in FRSO, like at the library or the coffee shop. What really happened is the undercover agent met up with a group of activists organizing as part of the Antiwar Committee (AWC) (which was targeted and raided by the FBI too). They were the “chief organizers” of a major march. Months were spent trying to secure permits for the action in downtown St. Paul to demand an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the affidavit makes no mention of this part of the FBI operation when intelligence was being fed to authorities for the national special security event.
The affidavit laying out the “facts supporting probable cause to search the subject premises” was written by Special Agent John P. Thomas of the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force in Minneapolis. Thomas makes clear in a footnote, “My descriptions of recorded conversations made by UC1 [“Sullivan”] are summaries based on my review of the recordings, the review of recordings by other JTTF members, UC1’s reports describing those recordings and my understanding and UC1’s understandings of the context of the recorded conversations. These descriptions are not based on a final, verbatim transcript.” It does not contain a “description of every topic discussed or every statement contained in any recorded conversation.”
The content of the affidavit seems to consist of the most sensational and often out-of-context statements and jokes uttered by activists in the presence of “Sullivan.” They are accepted as serious and fact, and the humor and cultural context is not understood by FBI agents. It is as if they still suffer from an institutional and historical bias against left-wing organizing that can be traced back to when the Bureau was founded and operated by J. Edgar Hoover with a commitment to destroying and annihilating the effective organizing efforts of communists and socialists.
That does not mean the allegations should not be taken seriously. Their nature give the FBI a great power to wield over the activists as government prosecutors continue to threaten to charge them with allegedly providing, attempting to provide or conspiring to provide “material support for terrorism.”
What is Asserted in the FBI’s Affidavit?
In sum, the affidavit asserts that FRSO has a “secret goal” to “violently overthrow the government of the United States.” It has also “secretly provided” “material support” to the FARC and PFLP. It alleges that “Sullivan” learned the FRSO provided “material support to terrorist organizations through donations to individual members of foreign terrorist organizations, to unions operating as fronts for the terrorist organizations and through ‘delegations’ composed of FRSO members visiting the terrorist organizations.”
A second undercover officer apparently pretended to be “Sullivan’s” life partner and was shown a video of Sundin on a trip in Colombia where she met members of the FARC in 2000.
“Sullivan” was invited to go on a solidarity trip to Palestine in August 2009. The activists helped her fundraise to go on the trip, and “Sullivan” apparently asked multiple times about whether the activists going on the trip would raise money for the Palestinian Women’s Union, which hosted the trip. The undercover agent also determined that the Women’s Union has members, who are a part of PFLP, and concluded money given to them would likely fund the purchase of guns.
Toward the end of July 2009, the undercover agent asked about $4,100 raised for the delegation ($2,000 which was for a “donation”). The affidavit claims that the Antiwar Committee Educational Fund, a nonprofit, made a “grant” to the Antiwar Committee, which then issued checks in order to protect the nonprofit’s status because money was being sent to a “terrorist organization.” There apparently was fear (though this may be a joke) that if the Antiwar Committee was audited or looked into by the FBI “it would be in jeopardy.”
While it may seem like this would make a case to bring charges against the activists, apparently nothing happened that the FBI wanted to prosecute at that point. Multiple transactions are described in the affidavit in the months following August but none indicate proof of “material support” for PFLP. Significantly, “Sullivan” was not able to get into Israel with the delegation because when she arrive in Israel, she and two other delegates were denied entry by Israeli security.
Pressure Mounts, FBI Needs a Case It Can Prosecute
The pressure to conclude the operation and prosecute someone for an actual crime increased. By March 4, 2010, the operation became one where “Sullivan” was engaged in an effort to entrap one of the activists into sending $1,000 dollars to a foreign terrorist organization.
From the affidavit:
…On March 4, 2010, UC1 recorded a conversation with [REDACTED]. UC1 told [REDACTED] that UC1’s father had left him/her a package, which included envelopes and a video called “Women in Struggle,” when he recently died. UC1 told [REDACTED] that the video was about women in the PFLP who admitted killing and bombing targets in Israel. UC1 said that his/her father left $1,000 for UC1 to get to the “organization of the women in the video.” [REDACTED] said that they can “get it to our people.” [REDACTED] told UC1 to talk to [REDACTED] at the FRSO Congress meeting in May 2010. [REDACTED] said that “if that’s what you want to do with it, we can get it there” and said that $1,000 “will go far in a place like Palestine.” UC1 said that the $1,000 was for the women “which were the PF.”…
So, “Sullivan,” an undercover FBI agent, informed activists she wanted them to ensure money reached women who were part of a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization. She insisted after it appeared the money might go to Palestinians, who were not a part of the PFLP. She was part of a perverse scheme to convince activists that her father had died and it was his last dying wish to get money to the PFLP because he had treasured a documentary on Palestinian militant resistance to Israeli occupation.
The undercover agent raised the issue of the documentary and her fictional dead father’s $1,000 again on March 10. “Sullivan” talked with an activist on March 11 about it another time, suggesting her father “regretted” not sending it when she was “part of the delegation to Palestine in 2009.”
“Would It Actually Go to the PF?”
A span of more than two months elapsed. None of what happened is highlighted in the description of this effort to get the activists to send $1000 to the PFLP. Suddenly, May 20, 2010, “Sullivan” was back at it again trying to get the money to this US-designated foreign terrorist organization. She managed to get an activist to text someone about giving money to an “NGO,” which appears to have been twisted into PFLP works with NGOs so the activist was going to help get the money to the PFLP.
Finally, there was an FRSO national meeting at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Northbrook, Illinois for dues paying FRSO members from May 28 to May 31. “Sullivan” was committed to achieving success by getting some member to transfer the money to the PFLP.
…On the evening of May 29, 2010, UC1 approached [REDACTED], who were speaking with one another, and recording the ensuing conversation. [REDACTED] told UC1 that she had spoken with [REDACTED] and that “it is going to be taken care of.” [REDACTED] told UC1 that [REDACTED] wife will be leaving for Palestine in about a month, so it will not be a problem to get done what UC1 needed to get done. [REDACTED] said “yes, it should be easy.” [REDACTED] said it is especially easy to get the money there when a family member is going. UC1 asked “would it actually go to the PF.” [REDACTED] responded “yeah, yeah.”…
“Yeah, yeah,” like go away from me now and stop asking about sending money to a terrorist organization? Or “yeah, yeah,” like, yes, your money will get to where you want it to go?
…[REDACTED] said he would tell his wife who to give it to. FRSO Member K stated, “The war on terror, right here. Who is the terrorist? We are the terrorist.” [REDACTED] laughed loudly after FRSO Member K made this comment…
The affidavit shows that less than an hour later “Sullivan” raised the issue of the video and the $1000 from her fictional dead father yet again. She got someone to say he loved her story and it would “be cool” to help her send money because it is “such a cool story.” And the undercover agent asked someone to “just tell me it’s going to the org (the PFLP).”
On May 30, “Sullivan” handed off $1,000 to someone at the national meeting. A male allegedly took the cash, put it in his pocket, hugged the undercover agent and said, “Thank you. This will get to the PF.” A letter from the PFLP was “purportedly” read that day, where a leader sent “special thanks to FRSO for their immeasurable support of him and the PFLP.”
…On May 31, 2010, in a recorded conversation, [REDACTED] asked UC1 if it would “be OK if that money was sent from our organization [the FSRO].” [REDACTED] stated that “we’ve given substantial material aid in the past [to the PFLP.” [REDACTED] referenced UC1’s trip with other FRSO members in 2009. [REDACTED] stated that the money that UC1 and other members brought “got to them” even though they were turned away at the Israeli border… [emphasis added]
It appears this person did not say it had given “substantial material aid” to PFLP in the past. To PFLP was grafted onto the statement by the FBI. The money would go to wherever the money went during the delegation in 2009, which meant probably not the PFLP or else “Sullivan” would not have spent the past months trying to get an activist to commit the crime of material support for terrorism. The activists involved in the conspiracy, if one existed, would have been arrested after the 2009 trip.
Raids were not carried out on the homes or the office of the Antiwar Committee until the final week of September 2010. That is about four months later. What was the problem? Obviously, the FBI didn’t know if money was given to the PFLP and, ultimately, it just decided to raid homes and an office, seize property and conduct a search of computers and records to see if it could uncover the evidence the agency desired so prosecutors could bring a case.
“An Embryonic Version of Officially Instigated Terrorism”
The nature of this FBI operation may evoke memories of COINTELPRO operations directed at groups like the Socialist Workers Party, the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, the New Left, the American Indian Movement and even black and white hate groups. Frank Donner, civil liberties lawyer, author and director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Project on Political Surveillance, considered these operations “an embryonic version of officially instigated terrorism.”
“The Bureau constituted itself the secret instrument of the tribal system of justice directed against people it had itself defined as enemies and outcasts,” he argued. They were “unfettered by professionalism or, for that matter, the norms of legality and accountability.” They did what “seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Betty Medsger, in her book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, explores this in great detail as she tells the story of activists who broke into the FBI’s office in Media, Pennsylvania, and took files which exposed domestic surveillance in the 1970s.
These operations, she notes, were to “maintain the status quo and quash new ideas by harassing people into silence and passivity.” For example, the FBI used informant Robert Hardy to become an “agent provocateur” and advise a group of peace activists on how to “break into the draft board office.” He “taught them techniques” they did not know and had not used in previous draft board raids.
In the case of twenty-three activists, who have faced a federal grand jury investigation for over three years, they are Americans who have organized in solidarity with the people of Colombia and Palestine that are engaged in life and death struggles.
The government has put forward no clear evidence that any of the money being donated specifically went to groups designated as terrorist organizations. In fact, the FBI would have the public believe these activists provided “material support” to the FARC because the FBI happens to believe there are FARC members, “who do not publicly acknowledge their FARC membership and who are members of various unions in Colombia.” What the FBI fails to grasp is it would not be a crime to support these unions if it they are not designated terrorist organizations.
What is really their crime? They are on the side of political struggles in countries, which the US government has opposed through its foreign policy.
Yet, years after the raids, these activists have not gone into hiding. While they have not organized any solidarity trips, they have spoken out and fought back and, as Sundin said, refused to “hide in the shadows.” They have stood behind the work they have done and “created a real challenge” for the government to proceed with this case, according to Sundin.
The activists’ lawyers do not know whether the government plans to eventually charge these activists with “material support for terrorism” charges, which if it were to happen would be incredibly serious. But for now, the public can see the dubious evidence at the center of the case—evidence that seems to involve an undercover agent once again trying to get activists to engage in criminal activity as a means to control and repress individuals courageous enough to dissent against deeply entrenched policies of their government.