The FBI, Anti-Globalization Protests, and FOIA Deception

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, international financial summits, like the IMF and the World Bank, attracted masses of protesters. In many cases, protesters engaged in civil disobedience. They were also met with brutal repression by police that included physical violence and illegal arrests. The media helped peddle police narratives that painted them as violent rioters engaged in senseless destruction for destruction’s sake. The reality is that protesters were victims of police riots.

The protesters against these institutions included a diverse group, including environmentalists, trade unionists, consumer protection advocates, Latin American solidarity activists, opponents of Third World debt, and traditional socialist groups. They are frequently dubbed “anti-globalization” protesters, although many in the movement rejected the moniker, preferring to be called “global justice” protesters.

The movement lost visibility following the 9/11 attacks. The atmosphere grew even more intolerable for dissent. Much of the energy of those still willing to protest in the darkest days after 9/11 was focused into opposing George W. Bush’s Middle East wars. Yet, remnants of the movement survived well into Bush’s second term. At the very first protest I ever attended, the massive September 24, 2005 600,000 person march against the Iraq war, there was a “feeder march” of anti-IMF/World Bank protesters.

Given what we know about the FBI’s penchant for spying on dissent, a reasonable observer might ponder how they tracked these events. And there was no question they were on the FBI’s radar. Six months before 9/11, then-FBI Director Louis Freeh gave testimony to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the threat of terrorism. During his testimony, he warned about the threat of “Anarchists and extremist socialist groups,” stating:

Anarchists and extremist socialist groups — many of which, such as the Workers’ World Party, Reclaim the Streets, and Carnival Against Capitalism — have an international presence and, at times, also represent a potential threat in the United States. For example, anarchists, operating individually and in groups, caused much of the damage during the 1999 World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Seattle.

The testimony attracted concern from civil libertarians and the organized left. An October 1, 2001, In These Times magazine issue ran an article raising concerns about a “new COINTELPRO.” The article was almost certainly written before 9/11. Of course, after the post-9/11 expansion of the FBI’s counter terrorism powers, there were a litany of high profile abuses to be concerned with.

While working on my forthcoming book The Imperial Bureau, I thought it was a good time to delve via FOIA into what the FBI was doing during that time period. Groups mentioned during the testimony, like the Reclaim the Streets and Carnival Against Capitalism, seemed like a good place to start. I also asked for documents mentioning or referencing other groups I knew to have helped organize Global Justice protests. To round it out, I also requested documents mentioning or referencing:

  • The 1999 Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, Washington,
  • April 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec, Canada,
  • Meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC,
  • Protests in Washington, DC on April 16, 2000, September 29, 2001, April 20, 2002, and September 24, 2005.

The FBI responded that the requests for documents mentioning or referencing specific protests in a specific city on a specific date were too vague. For most of the groups mentioned, the FBI claimed it had no documents. This was even true for Carnival Against Capitalism and Reclaim the Streets, which warranted two mentions in Congressional testimony from top FBI brass about the terror threat of socialists and anarchists!

It’s worth noting that I was very careful in phrasing my FOIA requests. FOIA bureaucrats love to pick at language and decide words render the request void. Yet, in a March 17, 2016 opinion a United States District Court for the District of Columbia Judge ruled in Shaprio v. CIA that found requests for records “mentioning” or “referencing” a subject met FOIA’s reasonable-description requirement. The idea that the FBI had not a single document that mentioned or referenced two groups singled out in testimony was preposterous.

Another group I request documents mentioning or referencing was Mobilization for Global Justice. Here too the FBI could find no documents. Yet, just a few days before I received this response from the FBI, the FBI turned over documents in response to a different FOIA request that included August 29, 2002 opening communication from a domestic terrorism investigation. They were part of a “preliminary inquiry” conducted under the FBI’s counter terrorism investigation in advance of a scheduled IMF meeting. The investigation was focused  on Anti-Capitalist Convergence, National Mobilization on Colombia, and Mobilization for Global Justice – showing that the FBI lied about the absence of documents. The documents were sparse and clearly incomplete. The sole basis for opening the preliminary counterterrorism inquiry was that the IMF was meeting, these groups had protested the IMF in the past, and two of them appeared likely to protest the IMF again.

Following receipt of these documents, I also filed a FOIA request for files mentioning or referencing the National Mobilization on Colombia. The FBI said it could find no such documents, even though it had just given me documents that fell within the parameters of my request. I filed appeals with the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy challenging the FBI’s claims that it had no documents that mentioned the Mobilization for Justice and National Mobilization on Colombia. I based my appeal on the documents the FBI had released to me in response to another FOIA request that definitively proved they were lying. The Office of Information Policy ruled for the FBI.

My quest to find out just how the FBI monitored the global justice movement led me to litigate three outstanding requests. These requests pertained to the 1999 WTO meeting, IMF and World Bank meetings from 1996, 2006, and the Quebec Summit of the Americas. After over a year of failing to assign any of these requests to a disclosure analyst, I sued to compel their release.

Yesterday, I received the first files–1,999 pages of documents from the FBI’s “counterterrorism preparedness” file created in response to the 1999 World Trade Organization’s designation as a “special event.” While I am still delving through the files, already one thing is apparent. The FBI absolutely has filed documents that reference “Reclaim the Streets” and “Carnival Against Capitalism.” In fact, the FBI was rather preoccupied with Carnivals Against Capitalism taking place across the country.

Unfortunately, these inconsistent responses are not surprising. In Defending Rights & Dissent’s 2019 report, Still Spying on Dissent: The Enduring Problem of FBI First Amendment Abuse I highlighted how “documents obtained through FOIA are heavily redacted or clearly incomplete. The FBI gives inconsistent or contradictory responses to FOIA requestors.” As a result, one of the report’s core recommendations was:

The Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General must investigate and report publicly on the FBI’s handling of FOIA requests. The FBI has given inconsistent responses to FOIA requesters, indicating that it has withheld documents. Whether this is purposeful or accidental is unknown. FOIA is an important tool for uncovering FBI First Amendment abuses. FOIA requests have helped lead to congressional, Government Accountability Office, and Inspector General reviews of FBI surveillance. It is vitally important to make sure the FBI is not willfully withholding important information from the public.

The FBI’s handling of my request further illustrates this problem. The FBI responded to specific requests saying it did not have files mentioning or referencing activists organizations. Yet, in response to other FOIA requests the FBI turned over files that clearly proved otherwise.

The question remains: how much more is the FBI hiding?