The FBI’s surveillance of a protest group in Iowa City prior to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., two years ago was far more extensive than initially reported, newly obtained FBI documents show.
Agents staked out the homes of political activists, secretly photographed and shot video of them, pored through their garbage, and studied their cell phone and motor vehicle records, according to records detailing the FBI’s counterterrorism investigation.
Federal agents and other law enforcement officers also watched and documented the protesters’ comings and goings at such places as the Iowa City Public Library; the New Pioneer Co-op natural foods store; the Red Avocado restaurant and the Deadwood Tavern; and the Wesley Center campus ministry of the United Methodist Church.
The FBI’s nine-month investigation in 2008 is detailed in more than 300 pages of documents obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act by David Goodner, a former member of the University of Iowa’s Antiwar Committee, and provided to The Des Moines Register.
The heavily redacted records indicate the FBI believed the Iowa City activists were part of a national network of radicals intent on disrupting the Republican convention in St. Paul, as well as the Democratic National Convention in Denver. The agency apparently learned of the Iowa City group, known as the Wild Rose Rebellion, by monitoring its Internet site. Names of most of the activists were deleted from the documents before they were released.
Goodner, 29, of Des Moines, who participated in the St. Paul protests and who is named in the documents, said the records show the federal investigation was a waste of time and taxpayer money.
“There’s no evidence presented in hundreds of pages that anybody with either the University of Iowa Antiwar Committee or the Wild Rose collective had any plans for anything other than a nonviolent, if confrontational, direct action street protest at the 2008 Republican National Convention,” Goodner said. Most of the Iowa City activists did not attend the Democratic convention in Denver.
About 25 members of Iowa City activist groups participated in the St. Paul demonstrations, but Iowa organizers said they were aware of only one Iowa City demonstrator who was arrested. Those charges were subsequently dropped.
Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York, cautioned that law enforcement faces a balancing act in monitoring political activist groups.
There is a legitimate need for law enforcement to be aware of groups that can potentially cause violence and disruption, said O’Donnell, an ex-prosecutor and former New York City police officer. But at the same time, some law enforcement agencies have had a history of overreaching in such investigations, gathering information on groups that had neither the capacity nor the intent to use violent means, he added.
“Hindsight is 20-20 on these things. When the threats turn out to be empty threats, there is a tendency to say, ‘Why did law enforcement go in there with such urgency and dedicate such resources?’ But should there be a failure by law enforcement to protect the public, then some folks will be screaming bloody murder about their ineptitude and that they were asleep at the switch.”
The FBI documents showed the Iowa City investigation began in March 2008 and was closed in December 2008. The probe ended after agents said they had identified an “association with other anarchist extremist networks” but found no involvement in “specific criminal activities.”
The Register reported last year that the FBI infiltrated the Iowa City protest movement in 2008 by planting a paid informant who attended meetings and hung out with activists. In addition, confidential FBI documents obtained by the newspaper showed an undercover deputy from the Ramsey County, Minn., sheriff’s department traveled to Iowa City to attend an anti-war conference in April 2008.
The Iowa City investigation, directed by the FBI’s Omaha office, was conducted with the knowledge of then-U.S. Attorney Matthew Whitaker of Des Moines. His office stated its support for opening a criminal investigation of the Iowa City political activists “with the use of all appropriate investigative techniques to identify any criminal activity,” according to an FBI document.
The FBI agents conducting the surveillance were assisted by officers from the University of Iowa Department of Public Safety, the Iowa City Police Department and the Coralville Police Department, FBI records show. As many as six agents and officers were involved in some surveillance operations.
FBI officials in Omaha didn’t return calls seeking comment last week.
Whitaker, now in private law practice in Des Moines, said last week that he was aware the FBI was looking into potential criminal acts relating to the 2008 Republican National Convention, “but I don’t remember any specifics at all.”
“We worked very closely with the FBI on a lot of different things and interacted. They would ask us if we would work with them to investigate potential crimes. That happened all the time,” Whitaker added. Asked whether the FBI’s Iowa City investigation amounted to overkill, he declined to comment, saying he was not involved on a day-to-day basis in the investigation.
Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine said last week that Minnesota authorities contacted him in 2008 before the undercover sheriff’s deputy was dispatched to the anti-war conference. But he said he was not aware of the FBI’s extensive investigation of the Wild Rose Rebellion and other Iowa City activists. He also disputed an FBI report stating that one of his officers assisted FBI agents during more than four hours of surveillance on a Tuesday night, and said he didn’t think anyone from his department took part in the operation.
Chuck Green, the university’s public safety director, didn’t respond to a request for comment. But Lt. Shane Kron, a spokesman for the Coralville Police Department, said his department routinely cooperates with other law enforcement agencies and does not judge the nature of the request.
The Wild Rose group, which the FBI described as an “anarchist collective,” was planning to help organize street blockades to disrupt the convention, at which Republicans nominated the presidential and vice presidential ticket of U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Robert “Ajax” Ehl, an Iowa City anti-war activist who was a Wild Rose contact person, said last week that the newly released documents show the FBI doesn’t understand “either anarchy or the protest movement … if they think it’s worth going through our garbage.” He said most people who were members of the group remain involved in social and political causes, but not under the Wild Rose banner.
Goodner said he obtained and released the FBI records because he thought the public had a right to know about the extent to which the government was spying on its own citizens. He described the surveillance in Iowa City as overly broad, unnecessary and expensive.
About 3,700 police officers – many in riot gear and some on horses – used tear gas, pepper spray and other methods to control protesters and quell disturbances outside the St. Paul convention. Some protesters shattered windows at retail stores, and others threw urine and feces at police, authorities said.
About 800 demonstrators were arrested, although most charges were subsequently dismissed. However, four members of a group known as the RNC Welcoming Committee still face criminal charges and are scheduled to go on trial in October in St. Paul. None is from Iowa.
Randall Wilson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said the new batch of FBI documents shows that anti-terrorism forces continue to misdirect their efforts at peace activists rather than true terrorists. The Iowa City protesters never tried to hide their activities, meeting at the Iowa City Public Library, the University of Iowa’s Memorial Union and other public places.
“There probably isn’t a group more opposed to terrorism than these people. Any self-respecting terrorist would not try to bring attention to himself by engaging in the type of activities that these people do,” Wilson said. “The only conclusion is that this is just the U.S. government using its investigative powers for political suppression.”
The Rev. Paul Shultz, executive director of the Wesley Center in Iowa City, said last week that he found it “laughable” to learn that surveillance documents show five FBI agents and another officer spent nearly 12 hours on a Saturday in 2008 staking out visitors to the campus Methodist center. He said he was not aware of anyone gathering there to plot illegal activities.
“We have had a variety of lecturers and speakers here. Sometimes anti-war people use our building. We have no political stances officially, but our building is a resource to the community,” Shultz said.
How FBI plotted to snatch garbage
Intelligence operation: The FBI efforts to gather intelligence about Iowa City activists in 2008 included a carefully planned effort to obtain their garbage. FBI agents found the home addresses for activists, learned the days the homes were scheduled for curbside trash pickup, and made plans to snatch up the trash overnight or in the early-morning hours.
Privacy issues: “The trash will only be obtained when it is located in an area where there is no expectation of privacy, which for these two residences is curbside near the street,” an FBI memo said. If the time frame for obtaining the garbage was not workable, an FBI agent planned to obtain the trash from a garbage truck during its normal pickup schedule.
Contents not identified: Another FBI memo described how two packages of garbage from an activist’s residence were retrieved from an Iowa City curb and placed in a locked facility. The contents were reviewed by two FBI agents, who removed two items and placed them into an envelope. Specific information about the two items was deleted from federal documents prior to their release under the Freedom of Information Act.
Anti-war surveillance in Iowa
The FBI has a history of conducting surveillance on political groups in Iowa over the past decade.
In November 2003, the Polk County Sheriff’s Department sent two undercover officers to monitor an anti-war conference at Drake University in Des Moines. Sheriff’s officials said they had no plans to spy on the local peace movement. Instead, authorities wanted to learn about potential problems in a protest planned for the next day at Iowa National Guard headquarters in Johnston.
In February 2004, federal authorities launched an investigation into the November anti-war conference at Drake. They issued grand jury subpoenas to four peace activists and to the university, asking for records of a student law group that sponsored the event. Prosecutors also obtained a gag order on Drake employees.
Less than a week after the federal investigation became public, the U.S. attorney’s office in Des Moines withdrew the gag order and the subpoenas without explanation.
In August 2004, a young FBI informant from Florida named “Anna” attended an anarchist conference in Des Moines, where she met a California activist named Eric T. McDavid, according to federal court documents. McDavid would later be arrested and convicted for conspiring to blow up a Northern California dam, a genetics lab, cell phone towers and other targets. “Anna” testified as a key witness at McDavid’s trial in Sacramento, Calif.