Agent of Change – Letter to the Editor The Nation – PDF

1987 Agent of Change

The Nation editorial of October 17 “Has the F.B.I. Really Changed?” correctly points out the broad authority given the F.B.I. to engage in spying under the foreign counterintelligence guidelines. The editorial, however, may be overconfident in its view that the domestic security/terrorism guide­lines protect political dissent here because they require “evidence of a criminal act com­mitted for political purposes.” In fact, the guidelines require more than that. They state that domestic security investigations are not to be begun unless persons “are engaged in an enterprise for the purpose of furthering political or social goals wholly or in part through activities that involve force and violence and a violation of the criminal laws of the United States.” In his directions to field agents explaining this guideline, former F.B.I. Director William Webster reaffirmed that the target enterprise must seek “to ac­complish its political or social objectives through violence.”

Unfortunately, there is recent evidence that this guideline has been disobeyed and that the F.B.I. has begun domestic security/ terrorism investigations of groups involved in no criminal activity or groups involved in nonviolent criminal acts. In August of 1987 the F.B.I. fired John Ryan, a twenty-one-year veteran of the Bureau, because he re­fused to begin a domestic security/terrorism investigation of Veterans Fast For Life, the Silo Plowshares and persons associated with these groups. Special Agent Ryan was work­ing in the F.B.I.’s Peoria, Illinois, office when he received a request from its Chicago office to investigate the activities of both those groups.

The Chicago F.B.I. teletype stated that glue had been put into the door locks of Army recruiting offices in Chicago and that leaflets supporting Veterans Fast For Life were found at the scene. A car traceable to someone allegedly associated with Silo Plow­shares had also been identified. On this basis the Chicago office opened a domestic security/terrorism investigation of the groups. (An interesting aside is that the Center for Constitutional Rights’ files contain a report of a suspicious burglary of Veterans Fast For Life’s Washington, D.C., office shortly after the F.B.I. investigation of that group was begun.)

Special Agent Ryan refused to participate in the investigation. In a memo to his supervisor he stated that “none of the actions of the ‘PLOWSHARES’ Group and the ‘VET­ERANS FAST FOR LIFE’ Group fit within the Domestic Security Guidelines and the FBI would hold credibility by distancing it­self from such investigation.” Ryan recognized that the acts committed involved the destruction of government property, and that therefore an investigation could be carried out, but stated that “The acts performed by the PLOWSHARES’ . . . have been consistently non-violent symbolic statements against violence.” As he wrote, “By vio­lence I mean any act that destroys, injures or impedes the physical, mental well-being or dignity of a human being. . . . The term ‘plowshares’ is drawn from the Biblical edict: ‘they shall beat their swords into plow­shares,’ and most pointedly refers to neutral­izing military violence.” Ryan specifically criticized the use of such investigations to impede First Amendment rights: “I believe that in the past members of our government have used the FBI to quell dissent, sometimes where the dissent was warranted. I feel history will judge this to be another such instance.”

It does appear that Special Agent Ryan was reading the guidelines correctly. Crim­inal acts, unless coupled with violence, should not be sufficient to begin a domestic security/terrorism investigation. Veterans Fast For Life was not accused of a criminal act. The F.B.I. apparently disagrees, and is presumably continuing the investigation. It is doing so without the services of a very brave agent, John Ryan.

Michael Ratner

Legal Director

Center for Constitutional Rights