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Secret Source

Local anti-war activists see their FBI file – and confirm what they suspected

For local anti-war activists, seeing paper evidence that the FBI is tracking their actions, and that it has a "source" among them, was as unsurprising as it was disturbing.

Jeremy Shenk and Marie Skoczylas work for the Thomas Merton Center in Garfield, where they have been promoting and participating in many of the group's very public actions together. They shook their heads at the FBI documents they received in late February.

"It looks to us," says Shenk, "that there's actually someone on the FBI's payroll that is around --"

"-- that is filing reports on us," says Skoczylas. "It's really fascinating --"

"-- and creepy," Shenk adds. "We really half-expected some surveillance was going on, but it's creepy to see it on paper."

Last May, the Merton Center, along with the ACLU, requested the Center's FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act. The Center received just a dozen pages, some of which were almost entirely blacked out except for a date and the words "Source, who is not in a position to testify, provided the following information" and "source observed …"

What, exactly, that source observed is hidden. But along with other papers in the file, it was enough to show that activists are being watched concerning "international terrorism matters" and "pacifism" -- sometimes on the same day.

Apparently, both notions are dangerous.

The earliest page is dated Nov. 29, 2002 -- the day Merton Center members distributed anti-war flyers in Market Square. The FBI notes that the Merton Center is a "left-wing organization … [distributing leaflets] currently focused on its opposition to the potential war with Iraq." The FBI mentions only one other Merton Center activity -- its support for "Humanity Day" at the Islamic Center in Oakland.

There are "more than a few Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent among the regulars attending meetings," it observes. There is "[o]ne female leaflet distributor, who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent. … No other TMC participants appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent."

Such profiling is troubling, says Skoczylas. And the "pacifism" label is simply inaccurate, adds Shenk -- it's neither Center policy nor the ethos of everyone there.

"They're clearly not just copying our Web site," says Shenk. "They are creating a profile for the Merton Center."

Pinning an attitude on the group and following its activities is easy, thanks to that Web site, the group's twice-weekly e-mailed event calendar, and their newspaper. Merton members are such overt operatives that Shenk and Skoczylas can't always figure out what exactly the FBI's covert operative "observed" on each date. Take the FBI's blacked-out report dated Feb. 25, 2005: Does that concern one of three events on Feb. 28, or perhaps the "Relaxing with Activists" benefit in Swissvale on Feb. 26, gearing up for the March 19 protest on the Iraq War's anniversary?

Skoczylas believes the FBI is not looking for secrets, but hopes instead to make their work less effective. She points to COINTELPRO: Revealed 35 years ago last week, the FBI's notorious counter-intelligence program was the agency's effort not just to spy on legal anti-war groups but to damage them. On March 10 of this year, NBC reported that the Pentagon "had wrongfully added peaceful demonstrators to a database of possible domestic terror threats" -- evidence of COINTELPRO in 2006, activists believe.

"It's a slippery slope from watching to interfering to becoming essentially at war with portions of your own population," says Alex Bradley of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group, which often partners with the Merton Center. "The government uses seemingly legitimate excuses to gather information and always ends up using that info in nefarious ways when it feels threatened."

Merton Center employees won't start looking for an intruder in their midst, says Skoczylas. Nor will the group ask that the FBI's spying be directed toward "the real terrorists."

"We're not saying, 'We're good kids -- why are they spying on us?'" says Shenk. "They've had lots of different excuses why there's been very insidious programs from the FBI. The reasons for doing it change, but the targets don't. The key is not to be intimidated by the surveillance."

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