Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Iowa activists drew extensive FBI scrutiny

September 20, 2010

Des Moine Register


Iowa activists drew extensive FBI scrutiny


By WILLIAM PETROSKI  bpetroski@dmreg.com




The FBI's surveillance of a protest group in Iowa City prior to the

Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., two years ago was

far more extensive than initially reported, newly obtained FBI

documents show.


Agents staked out the homes of political activists, secretly

photographed and shot video of them, pored through their garbage, and

studied their cell phone and motor vehicle records, according to

records detailing the FBI's counterterrorism investigation.


Federal agents and other law enforcement officers also watched and

documented the protesters' comings and goings at such places as the

Iowa City Public Library; the New Pioneer Co-op natural foods store;

the Red Avocado restaurant and the Deadwood Tavern; and the Wesley

Center campus ministry of the United Methodist Church.


The FBI's nine-month investigation in 2008 is detailed in more than

300 pages of documents obtained through the federal Freedom of

Information Act by David Goodner, a former member of the University of

Iowa's Antiwar Committee, and provided to The Des Moines Register.


The heavily redacted records indicate the FBI believed the Iowa City

activists were part of a national network of radicals intent on

disrupting the Republican convention in St. Paul, as well as the

Democratic National Convention in Denver. The agency apparently

learned of the Iowa City group, known as the Wild Rose Rebellion, by

monitoring its Internet site. Names of most of the activists were

deleted from the documents before they were released.


Goodner, 29, of Des Moines, who participated in the St. Paul protests

and who is named in the documents, said the records show the federal

investigation was a waste of time and taxpayer money.


"There's no evidence presented in hundreds of pages that anybody with

either the University of Iowa Antiwar Committee or the Wild Rose

collective had any plans for anything other than a nonviolent, if

confrontational, direct action street protest at the 2008 Republican

National Convention," Goodner said. Most of the Iowa City activists

did not attend the Democratic convention in Denver.


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.


Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal

Justice at City University of New York, cautioned that law enforcement

faces a balancing act in monitoring political activist groups.


There is a legitimate need for law enforcement to be aware of groups

that can potentially cause violence and disruption, said O'Donnell, an

ex-prosecutor and former New York City police officer. But at the same

time, some law enforcement agencies have had a history of overreaching

in such investigations, gathering information on groups that had

neither the capacity nor the intent to use violent means, he added.


"Hindsight is 20-20 on these things. When the threats turn out to be

empty threats, there is a tendency to say, 'Why did law enforcement go

in there with such urgency and dedicate such resources?' But should

there be a failure by law enforcement to protect the public, then some

folks will be screaming bloody murder about their ineptitude and that

they were asleep at the switch."


The FBI documents showed the Iowa City investigation began in March

2008 and was closed in December 2008. The probe ended after agents

said they had identified an "association with other anarchist

extremist networks" but found no involvement in "specific criminal



The Register reported last year that the FBI infiltrated the Iowa City

protest movement in 2008 by planting a paid informant who attended

meetings and hung out with activists. In addition, confidential FBI

documents obtained by the newspaper showed an undercover deputy from

the Ramsey County, Minn., sheriff's department traveled to Iowa City

to attend an anti-war conference in April 2008.


The Iowa City investigation, directed by the FBI's Omaha office, was

conducted with the knowledge of then-U.S. Attorney Matthew Whitaker of

Des Moines. His office stated its support for opening a criminal

investigation of the Iowa City political activists "with the use of

all appropriate investigative techniques to identify any criminal

activity," according to an FBI document.


The FBI agents conducting the surveillance were assisted by officers

from the University of Iowa Department of Public Safety, the Iowa City

Police Department and the Coralville Police Department, FBI records

show. As many as six agents and officers were involved in some

surveillance operations.


Weysan Dun, special agent in charge of the FBI's Omaha field office,

issued a statement today defending his agents'' handling of the Iowa

City investigation.


"Adherence to the U.S. Constitution and respect for the exercise of

activities protected by the First Amendment are the foundation upon

which the FBI conducts its investigations. The FBI initiates

investigations only when there are allegations or information that

indicates possible criminal activity or threats to national security.


"In this instance, the FBI Omaha Field Office initiated an

investigation into allegations that certain individuals were possibly

going to engage in criminal activity to disrupt the national

conventions of one or both major political parties. Every

investigative technique that was employed was authorized under the

attorney general guidelines and was deemed necessary to resolve the

allegations," Dun said.


Whitaker, now in private law practice in Des Moines, said last week

that he was aware the FBI was looking into potential criminal acts

relating to the 2008 Republican National Convention, "but I don't

remember any specifics at all."


"We worked very closely with the FBI on a lot of different things and

interacted. They would ask us if we would work with them to

investigate potential crimes. That happened all the time," Whitaker

added. Asked whether the FBI's Iowa City investigation amounted to

overkill, he declined to comment, saying he was not involved on a

day-to-day basis in the investigation.


Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine said last week that Minnesota

authorities contacted him in 2008 before the undercover sheriff's

deputy was dispatched to the anti-war conference. But he said he was

not aware of the FBI's extensive investigation of the Wild Rose

Rebellion and other Iowa City activists. He also disputed an FBI

report stating that one of his officers assisted FBI agents during

more than four hours of surveillance on a Tuesday night, and said he

didn't think anyone from his department took part in the operation.


Chuck Green, the university's public safety director, didn't respond

to a request for comment. But Lt. Shane Kron, a spokesman for the

Coralville Police Department, said his department routinely cooperates

with other law enforcement agencies and does not judge the nature of

the request.


The Wild Rose group, which the FBI described as an "anarchist

collective," was planning to help organize street blockades to disrupt

the convention, at which Republicans nominated the presidential and

vice presidential ticket of U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and

then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.


Robert "Ajax" Ehl, an Iowa City anti-war activist who was a Wild Rose

contact person, said last week that the newly released documents show

the FBI doesn't understand "either anarchy or the protest movement ...

if they think it's worth going through our garbage." He said most

people who were members of the group remain involved in social and

political causes, but not under the Wild Rose banner.


Goodner said he obtained and released the FBI records because he

thought the public had a right to know about the extent to which the

government was spying on its own citizens. He described the

surveillance in Iowa City as overly broad, unnecessary and expensive.


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 outside the St. Paul convention. Some

protesters shattered windows at retail stores, and others threw urine

and feces at police, authorities said.


About 800 demonstrators were arrested, although most charges were

subsequently dismissed. However, four members of a group known as the

RNC Welcoming Committee still face criminal charges and are scheduled

to go on trial in October in St. Paul. None is from Iowa.


Randall Wilson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union

of Iowa, said the new batch of FBI documents shows that anti-terrorism

forces continue to misdirect their efforts at peace activists rather

than true terrorists. The Iowa City protesters never tried to hide

their activities, meeting at the Iowa City Public Library, the

University of Iowa's Memorial Union and other public places.


"There probably isn't a group more opposed to terrorism than these

people. Any self-respecting terrorist would not try to bring attention

to himself by engaging in the type of activities that these people

do," Wilson said. "The only conclusion is that this is just the U.S.

government using its investigative powers for political suppression."


The Rev. Paul Shultz, executive director of the Wesley Center in Iowa

City, said last week that he found it "laughable" to learn that

surveillance documents show five FBI agents and another officer spent

nearly 12 hours on a Saturday in 2008 staking out visitors to the

campus Methodist center. He said he was not aware of anyone gathering

there to plot illegal activities.


"We have had a variety of lecturers and speakers here. Sometimes

anti-war people use our building. We have no political stances

officially, but our building is a resource to the community," Shultz



David Goodner can be reached at 515.991.6357 or david.a.goodner at gmail.com or Dingman CW House, 1310 7th St., Des Moines, IA 50314.  Go to http://www.desmoinescatholicworker.org/.



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