Above Photo: Director Christopher Wray attends a news conference to announce recent law enforcement action in transnational security threats case, at the U.S. Department of Justice headquarters on January 27, 2023 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer/Getty Images.
We must demand that the FBI cease invoking the Foreign Agents Registration Act to spy on and criminalize Black social justice leaders.
On July 29, 2022, Omali Yeshitela and his wife, Ona Zene, awoke at 5 o’clock in the morning to the sound of flash grenades and drones, as heavily armed FBI agents stormed into their home searching for evidence of organizational ties to the Russian government. Yeshitela is the 80-year-old chair of the African People’s Socialist Party, a Pan-Africanist political party founded in 1972 and headquartered in Florida. His wife is the deputy chair.
Last week, nine months after the raid, the Department of Justice unsealed new grand jury indictments against Yeshitela, as well as Jesse Nevel, Penny Hess, and Gazi Kodzo—national chair of the Uhuru Solidarity Movement, chair of the African People’s Solidarity Committee, and cofounder of the Black Hammer Party, respectively—naming them as co-conspirators in an alleged plot to promote the political interests of Russia within the United States.
The FBI surveilled these Black liberation activists and their organizations for years before finally securing a search warrant for their personal residences and other locations connected to the African People’s Socialist Party and the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement. The FBI’s search warrants were based on a federal grand jury indictment, which charged an unrelated individual—Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov—with violations relating to a little-known statute called the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
The superseding indictment charges Yeshitela, Nevel, and Hess with conspiring to commit an offense against the United States—specifically, “to act as an agent of a foreign government and foreign officials…without prior notification to the Attorney General” as required by law under FARA. The specific acts they are accused of committing include attending an international conference in Russia, publishing a “Petition to the United Nations on the Crime of Genocide Against African People in the United States of America” after encouragement from Ionov, accepting financial support from Ionov for a speaking tour in the United States to discuss reparations, permitting Ionov to speak during an African People’s Socialist Party event, and publishing and speaking in support of the Russian government. It is worth remembering that African American activists have charged the United States with genocide since at least 1951, when the Civil Rights Congress submitted a similar petition to the United Nations, titled “We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People.”
Despite the sensational nature of the charges and the Department of Justice’s presentation of the case, we should be clear: The indictments against the defendants do not allege any intent to commit violent acts, nor espionage, fraud, nor even election interference. Because of FARA’s extraordinary reach, the Department of Justice has been able to selectively invoke foreign agent accusations as a way to silence criticisms of the United States’ role in international politics.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act
Established in 1938, the Foreign Agents Registration Act requires certain individuals and organizations to register as foreign agents, and to publish specific “conspicuous statements” on informational materials they distribute that are “in the interests of” a foreign entity.
FARA applies to all individuals or organizations that operate or act “at the order, request, or under the direction or control” of a foreign individual, government, or organization, or “whose activities are directly or indirectly supervised, directed, controlled, financed, or subsidized” at least in part by such a foreign entity. In addition, FARA imposes a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment for failing to register, or six months imprisonment for violating the act’s other requirements.
FARA has its roots in the House of Representatives’ Special Committee on Un-American Activities, convened in 1934 in response to a perceived threat of foreign propaganda and influence. In creating the special committee, Congress was primarily concerned with the rise of Nazism and its influence in the United States, but also intended to root out communist influence. Indeed, the committee was a precursor to the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities established in 1945, which would go on to conduct sweeping anti-communist investigations under Senator Joseph McCarthy, targeting swaths of suspected leftists in the United States for political repression.
In 1935, the special committee issued recommendations to Congress that included requiring representatives of foreign entities to register publicly, prohibiting the advocacy of overthrowing the United States government by force, restricting the length of stay of certain noncitizens in the United States, and allowing for the prosecution of witnesses who refuse to testify before Congress. House Representative John William McCormack (D-Mass.) introduced the FARA legislation pursuant to these recommendations, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the legislation into law in June 1938.
While FARA may appear to be a politically neutral statute, a closer look at the history of its enforcement reveals that lawmakers use FARA as a weapon for stigmatizing specific political viewpoints that run counter to the interests of the US government. Furthermore, when FARA investigations are used as a pretext for intense FBI surveillance and intimidation of alleged associates of an alleged foreign agent, FARA becomes a dangerous smokescreen for political repression in the mold of Cointelpro and the notorious Red Scare of the 1950s and ’60s.
A legacy of politicized enforcement
Since its initial enactment into law, the DOJ has invoked FARA to stigmatize and criminalize political advocacy that is contrary to the interests of the US government. Early illustrative examples include the 1951 indictment of W.E.B. Du Bois, who was prosecuted as an agent of the Soviet Union for having promoted and circulated the Stockholm Appeal, calling for a ban on nuclear weapons.
Over the past 40 years, FARA has been used as a tool to go after such anti-war and human rights organizations as the Irish Northern Aid Committee, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, and Palestine Information Office. The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador has actually been threatened with FARA enforcement multiple times because of its support for progressive movements in El Salvador. The Palestine Information Office was forced to register as an agent of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and then shut down by the State Department in 1987, “because of U.S. concern over terrorism [allegedly] committed and supported by individuals and organizations affiliated with the” Palestinian Liberation Organization. In this way, the Palestine Information Office’s coerced FARA registration gave the State Department a basis for shuttering its operations under the guise of national security.
More recently in 2018, the Republican-controlled House Committee on Natural Resources initiated FARA inquiries against four environmental advocacy organizations, including Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The NRDC is a nonprofit organization that works to “ensure the rights of all people to the air, the water, and the wild.” In a June 2018 letter to the organization, the committee accused the NRDC of “aiding China’s perception management efforts” related to environmental issues “in ways that may be detrimental to the United States,” claiming that it “appears to practice self-censorship, issue selection bias, and generally refrains from criticizing Chinese officials” but appears adversarial in its advocacy practices in the United States. The NRDC had previously criticized the environmental record of the committee chair.
The second inquiry was launched against Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm that represented a coalition of Japanese activists who were attempting to prevent the Department of Defense from relocating Air Station Futenma to the island of Okinawa, in hopes of protecting local ecosystems. As part of its advocacy, Earthjustice publicly condemned the base’s relocation and sent open letters to the president of the United States and the Japanese prime minister. The Committee on Natural Resources alleged that by “directly participat[ing] in the publicity campaign” Earthjustice had crossed a line from legal representation to political activities covered by FARA and should therefore be required to register.
A dangerous smokescreen for political repression
The Department of Justice is likely to invoke FARA and foreign agent regulations more and more often in the next few years, especially to target anti-war activists and movements critical of United States foreign policy. Already in 2022, the DOJ signaled its intention to broaden the scope of FARA to cover a wider range of activities and less direct agent-principal relationships. It is now more imperative than ever that progressive activists develop a nuanced understanding of the cynical ways that FARA can been deployed to undermine international solidarity and grassroots organizing.
The federal charges against Yeshitela, Hess, and Nevel also come on the heels of a drastic increase in FBI attention to Black organizers. Since 2017, the FBI has specifically targeted Black organizers against police brutality—whom it has labeled “Black Identity Extremists” or, more recently, “Racially Motivated Violent Extremists”—under Operation “Iron Fist.”
Indeed, FBI Director Christopher Wray stated in August 2022 that “the top domestic terrorism threat we face continues to be from [domestic violent extremists] we characterize as racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.” As of 2020, this category of alleged “extremists” included “actors who use retaliation and retribution for wrongdoings against African Americans by those they view as oppressors, including law enforcement of all races, whites, government personnel, and others they view as participants in an unjust institutionalized system,” according to the FBI’s threat guidance document.
Given this political context of increased attention to Black liberation organizers, it is safe to predict that foreign agent accusations will also be used more frequently in the coming years as a tool for spying on, intimidating, and criminalizing Black social justice organizations and Black internationalism, as well as other social movements that critique the United States’ actions abroad.
In the face of this targeted political repression, progressive forces should resist the cynical, politicized use of “foreign agent” accusations as a dog whistle to chill and criminalize international solidarity, and should directly oppose the attendant FBI raids and prosecutions when and where they occur. The chilling effect caused by foreign agent accusations is an incredibly powerful deterrent against protected First Amendment activity, and such accusations could lead to financial ruin, as was the case for Du Bois.
We must demand that the FBI immediately cease targeting the Black liberation struggle and other struggles for social justice before its intimidation tactics cause even further damage.
This piece was originally published in The Nation on April 25, 2023.