Openness and Transparency: Not Just for Governments

An article in the local free newspaper City Pages details some pretty inept attempts by the local Joint Terrorism Task Force, or JTTF, to recruit a college student into becoming a “mole” in the local activist community. I’m not sure this is really newsworthy – except inasmuch as it suggests the JTTF are desperate; assuming – as seems reasonable – that it’s RNC-related, trying to “infiltrate” a group of professional paranoids in less than four months seems a plan doomed to quick failure. That said, I think there are two interesting aspects of the whole thing that deserve examination…

The first is that this story originally broke on activist websites just over a week ago. The announcement which was widely copied across those sites included an interesting detail: the individual approached by the FBI is “known to the…Twin Cities Eco-Prisoner Support Committee”, a small group of local activists who seem to like writing letters to, and raising money for, incarcerated Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front activists. Sergeant Erik Swanson might have seen this association as a benefit; but I question whether he even knew about it. If he did, then that radically changes how the “incident” should be characterized – instead of looking for a “mole” to “infiltrate” the local radicals, might he and the FBI have been (knowingly) trying to “turn” someone who already had the right connections? If so, the attempt seems to have – predictably enough – backfired.

The second thing I find interesting is that the odds are good this is a black-and-white issue for most people, as reported. Either you see the radical community in Minneapolis as a threat that needs monitoring, or you see this as an unconstitutional violation of various rights and the reincarnation of COINTELPRO. I suspect there’s an overlooked piece of middle ground: Namely, that activist groups are not necessarily a security threat, but because of the way they operate, need to be investigated by law enforcement nonetheless.

The reasoning is something like this: There are, I believe most people will agree, some radical fringe groups with a history of or propensity for causing trouble of the destructive and/or violent sort. Hysterical outrage about freedoms and liberties and rights aside, these groups are of real and legitimate interest to law enforcement. However, for every group that plans violent and destructive acts, there are probably ten or twelve groups that are pretty much harmless. The problem is, to figure out who is harmless and who is a threat, law enforcement needs information, or as they say in more suspicious circles, “evidence”.

The thing about evidence, though, is that it can exculpate just as easily as it can incriminate. If activists truly have nothing to hide, then – irrational paranoia aside – it seems like it would be in their own best interests to have a degree of transparency to law enforcement. Even with the “T word” being bandied around, authorities only have a very finite amount of resources at their disposal, and have to expend them where they’ll do the most good. Infiltrating and keeping constant tabs on every activist group and its members is, among other things, utterly impractical. Yet the lack of openness and transparency in activist communities means that authorities can’t – easily – find out who is up to what, if only to determine that they really are as harmless and innocent as they claim to be.

Part of the problem – from law enforcement’s perspective – is the huge overlap in membership between various radical groups, where two or three people may all be members of five or six different, and nominally individual, groups or movements. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re looking at a group of eight or ten people, a thirty-percent overlap with the membership of another group starts to look significant. In the absence of information, or evidence – call it what you will – to the contrary, it’s very easy to start playing “guilt by association”.

Yeah, there’s a lot of distrust of law enforcement among activists, some of it well-placed. I still can’t help but think that anarchists, by acting as though they have something to hide, are basically asking for trouble. Now, I’m a strong believer in the right to privacy, among others. At the same time, though, I believe that the absolutely best way to attract attention is to act like you have something secret to hide, which is exactly what most activists and activist groups do. It’s a thorny issue, I admit, but if activists with nothing to hide made that clearly and easily available to the government, those folks could get on with their jobs and stop being forced to resort to stupid tricks like recruiting idiot taggers.

Transparency and openness are seen as good things – even vital things – on the part of governments and corporations. Why should groups who protest war or distribute free food to the masses be any different? I know that some of the folks in question are anti-government anarchists, but shouldn’t those who believe in changing, not toppling, government see the benefits in setting good examples?

Published in: Geekiness, General, Security | on May 22nd, 2008| Comments Off on Openness and Transparency: Not Just for Governments

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