Pending Lawsuit Challenges Military Spying and Current Day COINTELPRO Tactics of Infiltrating and Disrupting Political Groups
A pending lawsuit in federal court, Panagacos v. Towery, exemplifies the federal government’s overreach and abusive spying policies of the National Security Agency, but it also illustrates the practical applications of such spying and how the military continues to use infiltration and counterintelligence programs (COINTELPRO) to undermine movements for social change.
In 2009, it was revealed through public records requests that over a 2-year period beginning in 2006, Army intelligence analyst John J. Towery (under the alias “John Jacob”) infiltrated and spied on the Olympia antiwar group Port Militarization Resistance (PMR) as well as several other organizations, including Students for a Democratic Society, the Industrial Workers of the World, and Iraq Veterans Against the War. PMR was an antiwar group formed in 2006 that used nonviolent civil disobedience to resist military shipments at public ports in the pacific northwest.
As a result of constitutional rights violations, seven impacted activists filed a lawsuit in 2009, seeking damages and injunctive relief. The Panagacos case not only names Towery as a defendant, but also Thomas Rudd, one of Towery’s superiors at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the U.S. Army, Navy, and Coast Guard, as well as certain officials within its ranks, the City of Olympia and its police department, the City of Tacoma and its police department, Pierce County, and various personnel from those jurisdictions for their role in the violations.
The Army’s infiltration and intelligence gathering against political activists not only violates the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which forbids the military from enforcing civilian law on U.S. soil, it’s also reminiscent of the counterintelligence (COINTELPRO) tactics used by the FBI in the 1970s to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize” political groups. For example, Towery passed on his “intelligence” to the Washington State Fusion Center, a communications hub of local, state and federal law enforcement, which was then used by local police to target activists for repeated harassment, preemptive and false arrest, excessive use of force, and malicious prosecution.
It was discovered that Towery not only administered the PMR email listserv, but also admitted in court documents that he eavesdropped on a privileged, attorney-client listserv of criminal defendants and their legal counsel. Already a constitutional violation, Towery went even further by passing sensitive information from the listserv, vital to a pending criminal trial in 2007, on to fusion center officials who then transmitted it to prosecutors, forcing a mistrial in a case the defense was winning. That case was later dismissed for prosecutorial misconduct. Records requests also revealed that the fusion center, one of dozens across the country, disseminated “domestic terrorist” dossiers on some of the plaintiffs in advance of a 2007 Domestic Terrorism Conference held in Spokane.
In late 2013, former Army intelligence officer, Church Committee investigator, and professor of constitutional law Christopher Pyle agreed to be an expert witness in the case and filed a report that pointed to “a long and well-documented pattern of military surveillance of anti-war groups like the Plaintiffs who were then subjected to arrest by civilian police in connection with their political, not criminal, activity.” Pyle, who blew the whistle on similar politically motivated spying in the 1960s, said the military abolished the U.S. Army Intelligence Command in the early 1970s, “promised Congress it would never do [it] again,” and burned relevant files in order to avoid Freedom of Information Act requests. However, not only has military spying continued, but public records obtained by activists last year indicate that the Army continued to spy on and target protesters until at least 2010, long after Towery’s identity was exposed.
The Panagacos case has received considerable media attention (including the New York Times, here and more recently here, Associated Press, The Nation, Democracy Now, and The Olympian), especially when the Obama Administration’s efforts to dismiss the lawsuit were rejected by the Ninth Circuit in a December 2012 ruling that found allegations of First and Fourth Amendment violations were “plausible,” and ordered the case to proceed to trial. However, continuing to ignore the overwhelming evidence, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald B. Leighton summarily dismissed the lawsuit in June 2014. Panagacos is now on appeal for the second time before the Ninth Circuit.
The ports of Olympia and Grays Harbor have not accepted a military shipment since PMR protests ended at those locations in 2007.