Politics

Shocking FBI Discovery: Austin Is Weird

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From a New York Times profile of Scott Crow, an Austin anarchist who recently FOIAed his files from the FBI:

Keep counterterrorism agents employed.

Mr. Crow, a lanky Texas native who works at a recycling center, is one of several Austin activists who asked the F.B.I. for their files, citing the Freedom of Information Act. The 440 heavily-redacted pages he received, many bearing the rubric "Domestic Terrorism," provide a revealing window on the efforts of the bureau, backed by other federal, state and local police agencies, to keep an eye on people it deems dangerous.

In the case of Mr. Crow, who has been arrested a dozen times during demonstrations but has never been convicted of anything more serious than trespassing, the bureau wielded an impressive array of tools, the documents show.

The agents watched from their cars for hours at a time — Mr. Crow recalls one regular as "a fat guy in an S.U.V. with the engine running and the air-conditioning on" — and watched gatherings at a bookstore and cafe. For round-the-clock coverage, they attached a video camera to the phone pole across from his house on New York Avenue.

They tracked Mr. Crow's phone calls and e-mails and combed through his trash, identifying his bank and mortgage companies, which appear to have been served with subpoenas. They visited gun stores where he shopped for a rifle, noting dryly in one document that a vegan animal rights advocate like Mr. Crow made an unlikely hunter. (He says the weapon was for self-defense in a marginal neighborhood.)

They asked the Internal Revenue Service to examine his tax returns, but backed off after an I.R.S. employee suggested that Mr. Crow's modest earnings would not impress a jury even if his returns were flawed. (He earns $32,000 a year at Ecology Action of Texas, he said.)

They infiltrated political meetings with undercover police officers and informers. Mr. Crow counts five supposed fellow activists who were reporting to the F.B.I.

There are two key quotes in the piece. One comes from Michael German, a former FBI agent now doing excellent work for the ACLU. (Read his terrific takedowns of fusion centers herehere, and here.) "You have a bunch of guys and women all over the country sent out to find terrorism," German tells the Times. "Fortunately, there isn't a lot of terrorism in many communities. So they end up pursuing people who are critical of the government."

The second quote comes from one of the cops keeping tabs on Crow and his fellow activists. Confronted with the words "nonviolent direct action," the agent declares the phrase "an oxymoron." If you're wondering how the definition of "terrorism" could get stretched so far that someone would think it covers a guy like Crow, that one reaction speaks volumes.

Elsewhere in Reason: Another tale of pointless political surveillance. And another. And another.