FBI Surveillance Of Occupy Wall Street Detailed
An Occupy DC protestor shouts at U.S. Parks Police at McPherson Square as authorities clear the square of the Occupy DC encampment on Feb. 4, 2012 in Washington, D.C. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
By Jason Cherkis and Zach Carter
WASHINGTON — Was Tim Franzen
stockpiling weapons? What was Tim Franzen’s philosophy? What was his political affiliation? Did Tim Franzen ever talk about violent revolution?
The Federal Bureau of Investigation wanted to know. In late 2011, an agent or agents — Franzen still isn’t quite sure — began trying to find out. It was during this time that Franzen became a well-known and central presence in Occupy Atlanta
. He helped start the Occupy Wall Street offshoot, and had been arrested when police razed their encampment in a downtown Atlanta park.
After the first police sweep of the park, Franzen told The Huffington Post that the FBI began interviewing his fellow Occupy Atlanta activists about whether Franzen might have a cache of weapons for a future violent revolution. He said the feds interviewed three different activists at their homes about his activities and beliefs.
“It definitely rattled my cage to have these kids getting knocks on their door,” Franzen said.
Here’s what the feds would have found out in the course of a background check on the activist: Franzen had a criminal record related to teenage drug use and robberies that supported his habit. But he last spent time in prison when he was 19. Franzen, now 35, went on to found a chain of halfway houses to help people make the transition from addiction to recovery. He later became a community organizer with the Quaker social justice organization American Friends Service Committee
, a position he continues to hold while working within Occupy Atlanta.
During one interview, an FBI agent gave one of Franzen’s fellow activists a business card, which was handed over to Franzen, who decided to call the agent and have a little fun.
“I have an expert on all things Tim Franzen,” Franzen remembers telling the agent over the phone. “I said, ‘I’m Tim Franzen.’ … He was sort of dumbfounded. He didn’t know what to say.”
Franzen chastised the federal agent for scaring his younger activist friends. “At first he started denying it,” he said. “He tried to write it off as not a big deal, as sort of protocol.”
At the end of December, the FBI released internal documents
that revealed a coordinated — if quixotic — surveillance of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Just about every law enforcement agency gets a cameo in the correspondence: Homeland Security, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, an entity known as the Domestic Security Alliance Council — and even the Federal Reserve. But the extremely limited disclosure makes it difficult to assess exactly with whom the government agencies were coordinating, or why. Was the FBI attempting to infiltrate and undermine the Occupy movement, or simply trying to keep tabs on protesters who were hoping to spark political change?
Of the 110 pages released — first obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund
through a Freedom of Information Act request — dozens are heavily redacted. The documents state that 287 additional pages on the FBI’s Occupy activities were “deleted” from the release by the agency for various reasons, including nine labeled “outside the scope” and 14 tagged “duplicate.”
At times, the documents are contradictory and show FBI agents spreading false information. The earliest memo erroneously describes Adbusters, the Canadian magazine that came up with the idea behind Occupy, as a “self-identified American revolutionary anarchist group.” In another, OWS is lumped in with the “Aryan Nations (sic)” and hacker-activists Anonymous as “domestic terrorists.”
In response to a request for comment, FBI spokesperson Christopher Allen replied via email, “The FBI cautions against drawing conclusions from redacted FOIA documents.” He continued, “While the FBI is obligated to thoroughly investigate any serious allegations involving threats of violence, we do not open investigations based solely on 1st Amendment activity. In fact, DOJ and the FBI’s own internal guidelines on domestic operations strictly forbid that.”
If there was a unified mission behind the Occupy surveillance, it appears the purpose was to pass information about activists’ plans to the finance industry. In one memo from August 2011, the FBI discusses informing officials at the New York Stock Exchange about “the planned Anarchist protest titled ‘occupy Wall Street’, scheduled for September 17, 2011.[sic] Numerous incidents have occurred in the past which show attempts by Anarchist groups to disrupt, influence, and or shut down normal business operations of financial districts.”
The documents reveal that the FBI met with officials from four banks and one credit union, and spoke over the phone with a representative from a fifth bank. The FBI also talked with officials from the Richmond Federal Reserve, a branch of the central bank that covers much of the American South. If the FBI communicated with any of the trillion-dollar banks that were the primary subject of Occupy Wall Street’s economic critique, however, those discussions have been redacted from the documents.
Citigroup, for example, is not mentioned anywhere the documents, while Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan are each mentioned once in passing. No documents show coordination between the FBI and any of those banks — although it would be conspicuous for the FBI to have communicated with smaller banks that were not a major focus of the Occupy movement while ignoring the much larger institutions that were recipients of the 2008-2009 bailouts.
The few direct communications with banks that are detailed in the documents reveal little evidence of improper behavior. On Oct. 6, 2011, the FBI called Zions Bank to inform the bankers that “Anonymous hactivists” had distributed the personal phone numbers of “the CEOs of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase” online, implying that Zions executives might also be subject to such treatment per an impending Occupy rally in Salt Lake City, where Zions is headquartered. Zions declined to comment on the call for this article, but the bank — which has about 2 percent of the total assets of JPMorgan — has not been a target of Occupy rhetoric before or since the FBI call.
The only other banks named in the FBI documents are Hancock Bank, Peoples Bank, Bancorp South and Regions Bank — all of which declined to comment for this article. The FBI attended a Nov. 16, 2011, meeting of officials from those banks in Biloxi, Miss., where someone from Hancock Bank warned attendees to expect an Occupy protest on Dec. 7 that could include a “sit-in” or efforts to “lock the bank doors.”
None of the banks mentioned in the FBI file would comment on whether the FBI met regularly with bank officials. Bank robbery is a federal crime, which gives FBI jurisdiction.
All of these banks would have been small-ball for a protest movement that targeted massive income inequality and outrageous executive pay. But if the FBI was issuing warnings to and meeting on security issues with these smaller banks, they were almost certainly having talks with bigger New York banks — meaning the portrait of the FBI’s activities around Occupy, insofar as the internal documents are concerned, is likely incomplete in a significant dimension.
Recent FBI investigations have at times put big banks in a negative light, but have yet to result in major actions against financial institutions. In July 2012, an FBI probe found that Bank of America had allowed a Mexican drug cartel to launder money through the bank. While BofA has yet to face any fines for the episode, the head of the FBI in Charlotte, N.C., BofA’s headquarters, recently left the law enforcement agency for a job at Bank of America.
While the FBI communicated with the financial sector about Occupy, it’s unclear the degree to which they engaged with actual Occupy activists like Franzen.
Kevin Zeese was one of the founding organizers of Occupy Washington, D.C.
, which set up camp just blocks from FBI headquarters and the Department of Justice. Zeese told HuffPost that infiltration by law enforcement agents or informants was an issue, but whether much of it was just shadowy conspiracy or serious agitating remains a mystery.
In one exchange he had with a Homeland Security officer, Zeese said the agent knew a key detail about a scheduled protest at the Environmental Protection Agency. Zeese joked that the officer knew more than he did about what was going on.
Zeese did remember one FBI agent who would bike over to the camp. Some of the younger activists talked regularly with the agent. “He was open about it,” Zeese said. “He would ride through on a bike with the FBI thing on his back.” The agent ended up spending a weekend at the camp and even donating funds to help pay for security.
Whether law enforcement had a hand in breaking up camps, Zeese said, “I can’t tell.” To which he added, “Down the road, there may be proof.”
Franzen suggests that federal agents conducted more clandestine activities than simple Internet searches and protest monitoring. Occupiers frequently complained that the more outspoken activists within their ranks appeared to be targeted by police for arrest. Franzen said there is a connection between the agent who inquired about him among his friends and his subsequent arrest at a protest. He chronicled the incident on his blog a year ago
Before the police officers warned the crowd to disperse from the street I had already gotten onto the side walk. One of the police Lieutenants yelled to his officers, ‘Get him’ and pointed at me. The police had to worm their way through the crowd in order to grab me and drag me into the street.
When I was dragged into the street, I asked the lieutenant what he was doing and he said, ‘arresting you.’
‘For what,’ I asked.
‘For being in the street,’ he said.
‘But I was on the sidewalk,’ I replied.
‘You’re not now,’ he said with a smile.