It Happened To Me: FBI started a file on me for protesting. I FOIA’d it

I got a padded mailer from the FBI yesterday.

At some point last year, I sent off Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to a number of government agencies. I’d actually pretty much forgotten about it after getting form letters back from a number of agencies saying they had nothing on me — or at least, nothing they felt like releasing.

Then, I got a padded mailer from the FBI yesterday. My FBI file had arrived!

The contents were not what I was expecting. I don’t think I’m that terribly interesting to the government, but I have had the fortune/misfortune to have socialized with, dated, and befriended a number of wonderful people who definitely would be considered “interesting” to law enforcement. I was expecting a few pages about my friends and lovers, but what I found was that I was physically followed by a group of FBI agents for five days of my life when I was 18 and involved in organizing a protest/campaign.

The FBI released 436 pages of intelligence related to or about me, none of which dates later than 2002. 436 pages! Printed out, it would be almost a whole ream of paper. And the most exciting things contained within are reports of us doing things like making photocopies, buying beer, riding the bus, and eating at a restaurant. 99% of it is mundane or mildly creepy, 1% of it is hilarious, and I hope there is something to be learned. There are a ton of redactions. It reads like this a lot of the time:

Here’s the story: myself and 10 or 11 other people (judging based on line spacing in redacted lists) were being spied upon as we organized a campaign that culminated in a protest. It ended up being a low-to-mid-level local protest event, got blurbs in the newspapers and TV that day, but will not be remembered by history books, which was about what we expected. None of us got arrested, no one destroyed any property, and as far as I know, no one planned to, either. (We were prepared for police aggression, and the group contained a number of street medics ready to deal with pepper spray.) It was the sort of thing activists do every month all around the world.

There are repeated statements that basically say the FBI is not aware of anyone planning violent, destructive, or illegal acts, but since other protests have (notably the 1999 Seattle WTO), it’s best to keep tabs on everyone just in case. I’m not going to tell you exact details and name names of this one silly campaign, because that bit actually doesn’t matter. We were a small group of young poor activists living off cheap eats, lusty protester sex, and bitching about the system. We could have been anyone or anywhere. For the three days leading up to our protest, the day of, and the day after, we were being followed by a group of FBI agents who wrote down what we were doing and often took photos.

I’ll spoil the ending for you: the only illegal act we committed in all 436 pages was dumpster diving at food distributor. This was not actually picked up by the FBI’s physical surveillance detail (that would come later), but a beat cop who happened to catch a few of us in the act on patrol. Friends and I were issued misdemeanor trespassing citations on the spot, the fine for which was under $100. (The FBI did note that a local police search of a compatriot netted the following suspicious materials: “three pieces of chalk in his pocket, green, red, and white in color,” as well as a sticker for a campaign.) After the citations by local police, the FBI “had the crime lab respond and photograph” the area. Oh, how exciting! What a crime scene!

After this dumpster diving citation, the clever FBI was excited to now know my address. Except, I was hardly “in hiding” or anything. For the first time since I was 15, I had an official address. My name was on the lease and I had phone/DSL service at that address under my own name, as well as a mobile phone with a bill that went to that address. Funny how my home address was still somehow a mystery to the federal government. (Which calls to mind the first InterPol warrant out for Julian Assange, where they couldn’t find one single photo of the man.) FBI agents did a scouting of my apartment building, noting that there was a mailbox with my last name on it in the lobby.

I am repeatedly identified as a member of a different, more mainstream liberal activist group which I was not only not a part of, but actually fought with on countless occasions. To somehow not know that I detested this group of people was a colossal failure of intelligence-gathering. Hopefully the FBI has not gotten any better at figuring out who is a part of what, and that this has worked to the detriment of their surveillance of other activists. I am also repeatedly identified as being a part of campaigns that I was never involved with, or didn’t even know about, including protests in other cities. Maybe the FBI assumes every protester-type attends all other activist meetings and protests, like we’re just one big faceless monolith. “Oh, hey, you’re into this topic? Well, then, you’re probably into this topic, right? You’re all pinkos to us.”

In taking a general survey of all area activists, the files keep trying to draw non-existant connections between the most mainstream groups/people and the most radical, as though one was a front for the other. There are a few flyers from local events that have nothing to do with our campaign, including one posted to advertise a lefty discussion group at the university library. The FBI mentions that activists may be planning “direct action” at their meetings, which the document’s author clarifies means “illegal acts.” “Direct action” was then, and I’d say now, a term used to talk about civil disobedience and intentional arrests. While such things are illegal actions, the tone and context in these FBI files makes it sound like protesters got together and planned how to fly airplanes into buildings or something.

There’s a heavily-redacted page that talks about people networking with activists from other countries, and when a non-American has traveled for a protest to the area on other occasions. This seems to be something of concern to them – if people would bother traveling for political causes. One listed criteria for which people were profiled was if they have been previously arrested at other protests. In trying to mentally piece together who might have been my fellow spied-upons, one of the people I think they were profiling had long since dropped out of activism by that point.

It’s the surveillance detail where things get funny and weird. Eleven or twelve of us were followed by a group of 3-6 FBI agents over the course of five days, and there was often a detail sitting outside of my apartment, totally unbeknownst to me. (I feel like a total chump that I didn’t notice that I was being followed and photographed during this time.) I had never read law enforcement surveillance logs before, so it was interesting to comb through the pages. Here is a typical page, which documents some hard-core anarcho-terrorist scheming, blue redactions were made by me:

Because if we let young people watch Lord of the Rings and drink beer, then the terrorists win!

Here are some other highlights about me, complete with snarky commentary:

Wow, serious Sherlock action there. I entered a bakery, came out with a bag, and I am believed to be carrying bread or food. (At least it doesn’t say, “… believed to be carrying plastic explosives and hand grenades.”)

This is cute to me because that hoodie was borrowed from my boyfriend at the time – perhaps the person I was seen walking with in this spy report. I remember how it was amazingly soft, and I loved wearing it. It smelled like him and made me horny. Also: glasses are sexy.

This one documents the most serious activisting on my part – making copies at Kinkos. The hidden humor here lies in the fact that it’s entirely likely that I was making copies about stuff ranting against the police state and the explosion of domestic surveillance of protesters since 9/11.

My very favorite thing the FBI recorded about me:

As you can see, I pose a clear and present danger to society. I pick up other people’s trash and put it in the proper bins.

I’m bummed out that I didn’t get to see good quality versions of my surveillance photos. There are dozens included, but they are so screwed up from generation loss and copying and faxing, you can’t even tell what’s in them. Most seem to be outdoors shots with some parked cars and trees. The surveillance photos all have an otherworldly quality to them, like faded memories and half-remembered strolls after too many Cooks-based mimosas on the first warm day of spring. Is this a photo of me? Am I holding hands with someone I almost loved? Or is this a photo of another person entirely, beamed from a parallel universe? Such are the artistic mysteries of the FBI spying on Americans.

The day of the protest, I was followed along with others to a vegetarian cafe afterwards. The FBI’s surveillance notes report that we sat at a table. You know, in stead of storming the place with guns drawn, demanding to be served in the bathroom, or on the ceiling. The day after the protest, we still had our followers – I guess to make sure we hadn’t planned an extra secret super-protest filled with violence and mayhem? I was observed visiting hotbeds of political unrest like a dollar store, a used records shop, and a discount grocery place. (Following us around, often on public transit, was basically a tour of “Places Poor People Go.”)

At the end of it all, when the FBI decided to close the case file after the protest transpired and nothing interesting happened, it is concluded of me:

Well, there was that dumpster diving incident, but I guess they’ll let it slide.

I wonder how much money this operation cost.

* * *

I don’t have any particular tips or tricks to filing a FOIA on yourself. I used this handy-dandy free service to generate the required form letters for me, which I then printed, signed, and mailed. I didn’t pay for anything, even though I indicated that I would pay for any amount of copying fees necessary. I sent the letters to all the national agencies, and maybe a dozen FBI branch offices. If I’m remembering correctly, I quickly got letters from all those local offices saying they’d sent my request to the national FBI office for processing.

What are you waiting for? All it costs is some stamps and 10 minutes of your time. Maybe a group of FBI agents once followed you around, too. Filing for one’s FBI file is one of those things I know a lot of us mean to do but never get around to doing. I hope this blog post inspires more Americans to make today the day you ask your government if, how, and why you have been watched.