Spying on the Resistance

Military Port Protesters in the Northwest Expose Government Infiltrator

Surprise! The government has done it again. It simply can’t resist spying on groups who actually use those pesky rights of free speech and assembly.

Activists in the Port Militarization Resistance (PMR) of Olympia, Wash., recently exposed an infiltrator employed by the Army. His exploits are proof that the government fears a strong antiwar movement.

Since 2006, PMR has inspired antiwar forces nationally with seven major direct action disruptions of military shipments at Washington ports. Its very effectiveness is what made it a government target. So now, Olympia activists are teaching the lessons learned about movement defense to a new generation.

And that’s as it should be. Militants can assume spies are around, and must learn to build the movement despite such obstacles.

Dirty deeds

John J. Towery, alias “John Jacob,” works on the Fort Lewis Army base near Olympia in “force protection.” He claimed to be a civilian computer technician and for two years got close to several activists in Olympia PMR, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

He passed information not only to his bosses at Ft. Lewis and the national military intelligence hub in New Jersey, but also to local police, the state patrol, FBI, Homeland Security, Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE), and others.

He became an email list-serve administrator — violating the privacy of everyone on the list. He sowed dissention among activists, and tried to sabotage blockades of war equipment at the Olympia port.

Such spying is illegal under the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, but this prohibition doesn’t stop military brass from doing it anyway. In the 1970s, the Army similarly spied on the anti-Vietnam War G.I. coffeehouse movement, including Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women, which were active in it.

Patty Imani, a founder of Olympia PMR, observes that it wouldn’t have been surprising to learn the FBI was involved. “Their dirty deeds are well known.”

The FBI has repeatedly attacked antiwar, people of color, labor and left movements. They have disrupted organizations, framed or entrapped activists for crimes, and even carried out political assassinations. These outrages reached their height in the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) of the 1960s and ’70s.

History shows that one end goal of infiltration is to find — or concoct — evidence for a grand jury to wield against the movement. The grand jury meets in secret and has extraordinary investigative powers that originated with the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s. A grand jury indictment is required for federal criminal charges, but juries typically act as a government rubber stamp.

Mark Cook, a former political prisoner and Black Panther, spoke to student activists in Olympia about lessons he learned in the struggle. He heard about the security leaks they were experiencing before the spy was discovered, and says he saw all the same things before he went to jail. “They monitor free speech and build a ‘sociogram’ (pattern) of who people associate with.” Despite being illegal, government spying is a constant that activists should expect. Cook says, “No matter how old you are, they follow you.”

Movement self-defense

Those who worked closest with Towery unmasked him. One activist made a public records request to the city of Olympia on behalf of the IWW for any communications between Olympia police and the military, on anarchists, SDS or the IWW. He received hundreds of documents.

One email with John J. Towery’s name popped up. Not knowing him, several people researched and discovered Towery was their “friend” John Jacob.

From these revelations, Patty Imani emphasizes the importance of building Olympia PMR’s defenses. She notes that Towery avoided more seasoned activists, who grew suspicious of him due to his divisive behavior. He gained the trust of a few people in key positions.

Giving him charge of the PMR email list was not a democratic decision by the group. Imani says, “If we are truly building a movement, we need to be inclusive and have democratic decision-making structures. Then we won’t be as vulnerable.”

Imani points to self-reliance as another important defense against infiltrators. Towery persuaded some contacts that his insider status was essential to PMR. But figuring out the Army’s plans can be done other ways, such as by following the media.

Here are some other lessons this writer learned during the Vietnam G.I. coffeehouse movement: act in such a way that grand juries have no ammunition; stand up to disrupters — whether they are agents or not; know the full background of anyone who has access to mailing lists or is trusted with information gathering and transmission!

The Army is supposedly “looking into the matter,” but don’t hold your breath. Better to learn from experience, expect government interference, and build the fight for social change in spite of it.

  • First published in the Freedom Socialist newspaper, Vol. 30, No. 5, October-November 2009.
  • Megan Cornish worked at the Shelter Half G.I. coffeehouse in Tacoma, Wash., in the early 1970s. She can be reached at: MCornish@igc.org. Read other articles by Megan.

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    1. Bob said on October 12th, 2009 at 5:06pm #

      Hi Megan:
      How is your therapy going? Do you still sleep in a aluminum foil lined room?

      You give paranoia a bad name!!

      Have a great day.

      PS. Posse Comitatus only covers uniformed members of the armed services in peace time. Not civilians! I’m going to write a book “The Law and Constitution for Dumbies”, you’ll get the first autographed copy.