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BUGS, TAPS AND INFILTRATORS:
WHAT TO DO ABOUT POLITICAL SPYING
by Linda Lotz
American Friends Service Committee
Organizations involved in controversial issues — particularly those who encourage or assist members to commit civil disobedience — should be alert to the possibility of surveillance and disruption by police or federal agencies.
During the last three decades, many individuals and organizations were spied
upon, wiretapped, their personal lives disrupted in an effort to draw them away
from their political work, and their organizations infiltrated. Hundreds of
thousands of pages of evidence from agencies such as the FBI and CIA were
obtained by Congressional inquiries headed by Senator Frank Church and
Representative Otis Pike, others were obtained through use of the Freedom of
Information Act and as a result of lawsuits seeking damages for First
Despite the public outcry to these revelations, the apparatus remains in place,
and federal agencies have been given increased powers by the Reagan
Good organizers should be acquainted with this sordid part of American history,
and with the signs that may indicate their group is the target of an
HOWEVER, DO NOT LET PARANOIA IMMOBILIZE YOU. The results of paranoia and
overreaction to evidence of surveillance can be just as disruptive to an
organization as an actual infiltrator or disruption campaign.
This document is a brief outline of what to look for — and what to do if you
think your group is the subject of an investigation. This is meant to suggest
possible actions, and is not intended to provide legal advice.
POSSIBLE EVIDENCE OF GOVERNMENT SPYING
|| OBVIOUS SURVEILLANCE
* Visits by police or federal agents to politically involved individuals,
landlords, employers, family members or business associates. These visits may
be to ask for information, to encourage or create possibility of eviction or
termination of employment, or to create pressure for the person to stop his or
her political involvement.
* Uniformed or plainclothes officers taking pictures of people entering your
office or participating in your activities. Just before and during
demonstrations and other public events, check the area including windows and
rooftops for photographers. (Credentialing press can help to separate the
media from the spies.)
* People who seem out of place. If they come to your office or attend your
events, greet them as potential members. Try to determine if they are really
interested in your issues — or just your members!
* People writing down license plate numbers of cars and other vehicles in
the vicinity of your meetings and rallies.
Despite local legislation and several court orders limiting policy spying
activities, these investigatory practices have been generally found to be
legal unless significant “chilling” of constitutional rights can be proved.
|| TELEPHONE PROBLEMS:
Electronic surveillance equipment is now so sophisticated that you should not
be able to tell if your telephone conversations are being monitored. Clicks,
whirrs, and other noises probably indicate a problem in the telephone line or
For example, the National Security Agency has the technology to monitor
microwave communications traffic, and to isolate all calls to or from a
particular line, or to listen for key words that activate a tape recording
device. Laser beams and “spike” microphones can detect sound waves hitting
walls and window panes, and then transmit those waves for recording. In these
cases, there is little chance that the subject would be able to find out about
Among the possible signs you may find are:
* Hearing a tape recording of a conversation you, or someone else in your
home or office, have recently held.
* Hearing people talking about your activities when you try to use the
* Losing service several days before major events.
Government use of electronic surveillance is governed by two laws, the Omnibus
Crime Control and Safe Streets Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance
Act. Warrants for such surveillance can be obtained if there is evidence of a
federal crime, such as murder, drug trafficking, or crimes characteristic of
organized crime, or for the purpose of gathering foreign intelligence
information available within the U.S. In the latter case, an “agent of a
foreign power” can be defined as a representative of a foreign government,
from a faction or opposition group, or foreign based political groups.
|| MAIL PROBLEMS:
Because of traditional difficulties with the US Postal Service, some problems
with mail delivery will occur, such as a machine catching an end of an envelope
and tearing it, or a bag getting lost and delaying delivery.
However, a pattern of problems may occur because of political intelligence
* Envelopes may have been opened prior to reaching their destination;
contents were removed and/or switched with other mail. Remember that the glue
on envelopes doesn’t work as well when volume or bulk mailings are involved.
* Mail may arrive late, on a regular basis different from others in your
* Mail may never arrive.
There are currently two kinds of surveillance permitted with regards to mail:
the mail cover, and opening of mail. The simplest, and least intrusive form is
the “mail cover” in which postal employees simply list any information that can
be obtained from the envelope, or opening second, third or fourth class mail.
Opening of first class mail requires a warrant unless it is believed to hold
drugs …. More leeway is given for opening first class international mail.
A common practice during the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO)
was the use of surreptitious entries or “black bag jobs.” Bureau agents were
given special training in burglary, key reproduction, etc. for use in entering
homes and offices. In some cases, keys could be obtained from “loyal American”
landlords or building owners.
Typical indicators are:
* Files, including membership and financial reports, are rifled, copied or
* Items of obvious financial value are left untouched.
* Equipment vital to the organization may be broken or stolen, such as
typewriters, printing machinery, and computers.
* Signs of a political motive are left, such as putting a membership list or
a poster from an important event in an obvious place.
Although warrant less domestic security searches are in violation of the Fourth
Amendment, and any evidence obtained this way cannot be used in criminal
proceedings, the Reagan Administration and most recent Presidents (excepting
Carter) have asserted the inherent authority to conduct searches against those
viewed as agents of a foreign power.
|| INFORMERS AND INFILTRATORS:
Information about an organization or individual can also be obtained by placing
an informer or infiltrator. This person may be a police officer, employee of a
federal agency, someone who has been charged or convicted of criminal activity
and has agreed to “help” instead of serve time, or anyone from the public.
Once someone joins an organization for the purposes of gathering information,
the line between data gathering and participation blurs. Two types of
infiltrators result — those who are under “deep cover” and adapt to the
lifestyle of the people they are infiltrating, and agents provocateurs.
Deep-cover infiltrators may maintain their cover for many years, and an
organization may never know who these people are. Agents provocateurs are more
visible, because they will deliberately attempt to disrupt or lead the group
into illegal activities. They often become involved just as an event or crisis
is occurring, and leave town or drop out after the organizing slows down.
An agent may:
* Volunteer for tasks which provide access to important meetings and papers
such as financial records, membership lists, minutes and confidential files.
* Not follow through or complete tasks, or else do them poorly despite an
obvious ability to do good work.
* Cause problems for a group such as committing it to activities or expenses
without following proper channels, or urge the group to plan activities that
divide group unity.
* Seem to create or be in the middle of personal or political difference that
slow the work of the group.
* Seek the public spotlight, in the name of your group, and then make
comments or present an image different from the rest of the group.
* Urge the use of violence or breaking the law, and provide information and
resources to enable such ventures.
* Have no obvious source of income over a period of time, or have more money
available than his or her job should pay.
* Charge other people with being agents (a process called snitch-jackets),
thereby diverting attention from him or herself, and draining the group’s
energy from other work.
THESE ARE NOT THE ONLY SIGNS, NOR IS A PERSON WHO FITS SEVERAL OF THESE
CATEGORIES NECESSARILY AN AGENT. BE EXTREMELY CAREFUL AND DO NOT CALL ANOTHER PERSON AN AGENT WITHOUT HAVING SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE.
Courts have consistently found that an individual who provides information,
even if it is incriminating, to an informer has not had his or her
Constitutional rights violated. This includes the use of tape recorders or
electronic transmitters as well.
Lawsuits in Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere, alleging infiltration of lawful
political groups, have resulted in court orders limiting the use of police
informers and infiltrators. However, this does not affect activities of federal
|| IF YOU FIND EVIDENCE OF SURVEILLANCE:
* Hold a meeting to discuss spying and harassment
* Determine if any of your members have experienced any harassment or noticed
any surveillance activities that appear to be directed at the organization’s
activities. Carefully record all the details of these and see if any patterns
* Review past suspicious activities or difficulties in your group. Have one
or several people been involved in many of these events? List other possible
“evidence” of infiltration.
* Develop internal policy on how the group should respond to any possible
surveillance or suspicious actions. Decide who should be the contact person(s),
what information should be recorded, what process to follow during any event or
demonstration if disruption tactics are used.
* Consider holding a public meeting to discuss spying in your community and
around the country. Schedule a speaker or film discussing political
* Make sure to protect important documents or computer disks, by keeping a
second copy in a separate, secret location. Use fireproof, locked cabinets if
* Implement a sign-in policy for your office and/or meetings. This is helpful
for your organizing, developing a mailing list, and can provide evidence that
an infiltrator or informer was at your meeting. Appoint a contact for spying
concerns. This contact person or committee should implement the policy
developed above and should be given authority to act, to get others to respond
should any problems occur.
The contact should:
* Seek someone familiar with surveillance history and law, such as the local
chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, the American Civil Liberties Union, the
National Conference of Black Lawyers or the American Friends Service Committee.
Brief them about your evidence and suspicions. They will be able to make
suggestions about actions to take, as well as organizing and legal contacts.
* Maintain a file of all suspected or confirmed experiences of surveillance
and disruption. Include: date, place, time, who was present, a complete
description of everything that happened, and any comments explaining the
context of the event or showing what impact the event had on the individual or
organization. If this is put in deposition form and signed, it can be used as
evidence in court.
* Under the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act, request any files
on the organization from federal agencies such as the FBI, CIA, Immigration and
Naturalization, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, etc. File similar
requests with local and state law enforcement agencies, if your state freedom
of information act applies.
|| PREPARE FOR MAJOR DEMONSTRATIONS AND EVENTS:
* Plan ahead; brief your legal workers on appropriate state and federal
statutes on police and federal officials spying. Discuss whether photographing
with still or video cameras is anticipated and decide if you want to challenge
* If you anticipate surveillance, brief reporters who are expected to cover
the event, and provide them with materials about past surveillance by your
city’s police in the past, and/or against other activists throughout the
* Tell the participants when surveillance is anticipated and discuss what
the group’s response will be. Also, decide how to handle provocateurs, police
violence, etc. and incorporate this into any affinity group, marshal or other
|| DURING THE EVENT:
* Carefully monitor the crowd, looking for surveillance or possible
disruption tactics. Photograph any suspicious or questionable activities.
* Approach police officer(s) seen engaging in questionable activities.
Consider having a legal worker and/or press person monitor their actions.
|| IF YOU SUSPECT SOMEONE IS AN INFILTRATOR:
* Try to obtain information about his or her background: where s/he attended
high school and college; place of employment, and other pieces of history.
Attempt to verify this information.
* Check public records which include employment; this can include voter
registration, mortgages or other debt filings, etc.
* Check listings of police academy graduates, if available.
|| ONCE YOU OBTAIN EVIDENCE THAT SOMEONE IS AN INFILTRATOR:
* Confront him or her in a protected setting, such as a small meeting with
several other key members of your group (and an attorney if available).
Present the evidence and ask for the person’s response.
* You should plan how to inform your members about the infiltration,
gathering information about what the person did while a part of the group and
determining any additional impact s/he may have had.
* You should consider contacting the press with evidence of the infiltration.
|| IF YOU CAN ONLY GATHER CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE, BUT ARE CONCERNED THAT THE
PERSON IS DISRUPTING THE GROUP:
* Hold a strategy session with key leadership as to how to handle the
* Confront the troublemaker, and lay out why the person is disrupting the
organization. Set guidelines for further involvement and carefully monitor the
person’s activities. If the problems continue, consider asking the person to
leave the organization.
* If sufficient evidence is then gathered which indicates s/he is an
infiltrator, confront the person with the information in front of witnesses
and carefully watch reactions.
* Request an investigation or make a formal complaint
* Report telephone difficulties to your local and long distance carriers.
Ask for a check on the lines to assure that the equipment is working properly.
Ask them to do a sweep/check to see if any wiretap equipment is attached
(Sometimes repair staff can be very helpful in this way.) If you can afford it,
request a sweep of your phone and office or home from a private security firm.
Remember this will only be good at the time that the sweep is done.
* File a formal complaint with the US Postal Service, specifying the problems
you have been experiencing, specific dates, and other details. If mail has
failed to arrive, ask the Post Office to trace the envelope or package.
* Request a formal inquiry by the police, if you have been the subject of
surveillance or infiltration. Describe any offending actions by police
officers and ask a variety of questions. If an activity was photographed, ask
what will be done with the pictures. Set a time when you expect a reply from
the police chief. Inform members of the City Council and the press of your
* If you are not pleased with the results of the police chief’s reply, file
a complaint with the Police Board or other administrative body. Demand a full
investigation. Work with investigators to insure that all witnesses are
contacted. Monitor the investigation and respond publicly to the conclusions.
* Initiate a lawsuit if applicable federal or local statutes have been
violated. Before embarking on a lawsuit, remember that most suits take many
years to complete and require tremendous amounts of organizers’ and legal
workers’ energy and money.
* Always notify the press when you have a good story; keep interested
reporters updated on any new developments. They may be aware of other police
abuses, or be able to obtain further evidence of police practices. Press
coverage of spying activities is very important, because publicity-conscious
politicians and police chiefs will be held accountable for questionable
American Friends Service Committee
980 North Fair Oaks Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91103
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