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Bugs, Taps And Infiltrators: What To Do About Political Spying

Bugs, Taps And Infiltrators: What To Do About Political Spying 

Organizations involved in controversial issues — particularly those who encourage or assist members to commit civil disobedience — should be alert to the possibility of surveillance and disruption by police or federal agencies.
During the last three decades, many individuals and organizations were spied upon, wiretapped, their personal lives dirupted in an effort to draw them away from their political work, and their organizations infiltrated. Hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence from agencies such as the FBI and CIA were obtained by Congressional inquiries headed by Senator Frank Church and Representative Otis Pike, others were obtained through use of the Freedom of Information Act and as a result of lawsuits seeking damages for First Amendment violations.
Despite the public outcry to these revelations, the apparatus remains in place, and federal agencies have been given increased powers by the Reagan Administration.
Good organizers should be acquainted with this sordid part of American history, and with the signs that may indicate their group is the target of an investigation.
HOWEVER, DO NOT LET PARANOIA IMMOBILIZE YOU. The results of paranoia and overreaction to evidence of surveillance can be just as disruptive to an organization as an actual infiltrator or disruption campaign.
Bugs, Taps And Infiltrators: What To Do About Political Spying is a brief outline of what to look for — and what to do if you think your group is the subject of an investigation. This is meant to suggest possible actions, and is not intended to provide legal advice.

Obvious Surveillance

Look for:
  • Visits by police or federal agents to politically involved individuals, landlords, employers, family members or business associates. These visits may be to ask for information, to encourage or create possibility of eviction or termination of employment, or to create pressure for the person to stop his or her political involvement.
  • Uniformed or plainclothes officers taking pictures of people entering your office or participating in your activities. Just before and during demonstrations and other public events, check the area including windows and rooftops for photographers. (Credentialling press can help to separate the media from the spies.)
  • People who seem out of place. If they come to your office or attend your events, greet them as potential members. Try to determine if they are really interested in your issues — or just your members!
  • People writing down license plate numbers of cars and other vehicles in the vicinity of your meetings and rallies.
Despite local legislation and several court orders limiting policy spying activities, these investigatory practices have been generally found to be legal unless significant “chilling” of constitutional rights can be proved.

Telephone Problems:

Electronic surveillance equipment is now so sophisticated that you should not be able to tell if your telephone converstaions are being monitored. Clicks, whirrs, and other noises probably indicate a problem in the telephone line or other equipment.
Among the possible signs you may find are:
  • Hearing a tape recording of a conversation you, or someone else in your home or office, have recently held.
  • Hearing people talking about your activities when you try to use the telephone.
  • Losing service several days before major events.

Mail Problems:

Because of traditional difficulties with the US Postal Service, some problems with mail delivery will occur, such as a machine catching an end of an envelope and tearing it, or a bag getting lost and delaying delivery.
However, a pattern of problems may occur because of political intelligence gathering:
  • Envelopes may have been opened prior to reaching their destination; contents were removed and/or switched with other mail. Remember that the glue on envelopes doesn’t work as well when volume or bulk mailings are involved.
  • Mail may arrive late, on a regular basis different from others in your neighborhood.
  • Mail may never arrive.


A common practice during the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) was the use of surreptitious entries or “black bag jobs.” Bureau agents were given special training in burglary, key reproduction, etc. for use in entering homes and offices. In some cases, keys could be obtained from “loyal American” landlords or building owners.
Typical indicators are:
  • Files, including membership and financial reports, are rifled, copied or stolen.
  • Items of obvious financial value are left untouched.
  • Equipment vital to the organization may be broken or stolen, such as typewriters, printing machinery, and computers.
  • Signs of a political motive are left, such as putting a membership list or a poster from an important event in an obvious place.

Informers and Infiltrators:

Information about an organization or individual can also be obtined by placing an informer or infiltrator. This person may be a police officer, employee of a federal agency, someone who has been charged or convicted of criminal activity and has agreed to “help” instead of serve time, or anyone from the public.
An agent may:
  • Volunteer for tasks which provide access to important meetings and papers such as financial records, membership lists, minutes and confidential files.
  • Not follow through or complete tasks, or else do them poorly despite an obvious ability to do good work.
  • Cause problems for a group such as commiting it to activities or expenses without following proper channels, or urge the group to plan activities that divide group unity.
  • Seem to create or be in the middle of personal or political difference that slow the work of the group.
  • Seek the public spotlight, in the name of your group, and then make comments or present an image different from the rest of the group.

If You Find Evidence Of Surveillance:

  • Hold a meeting to discuss spying and harassment
  • Determine if any of your members have experienced any harassment or noticed any surveillance activities that appear to be directed at the organization’s activities. Carefully record all the details of these and see if any patterns develop.
  • Review past suspicious activities or difficulties in your group. Have one or several people been involved in many of these events? List other possible “evidence” of infiltration.
  • Develop internal policy on how the group should respond to any possible surveillance or suspicious actions. Decide who should be the contact person(s), what information should be recorded, what process to follow during any event or demonstration if disruption tactics are used.

If You Suspect Someone Is An Infiltrator:

  • Try to obtain information about his or her background: where s/he attended high school and college; place of employment, and other pieces of history. Attempt to verify this information.
  • Check public records which include employment; this can include voter registation, mortgages or other debt filings, etc.
  • Check listings of police academy graduates, if available.

Once You Obtain Evidence That Someone Is An Infiltrator:

  • Confront him or her in a protected setting, such as a small meeting with several other key members of your group (and an attorney if available). Present the evidence and ask for the person’s response.
  • You should plan how to inform your members about the infiltration, gathering information about what the person did while a part of the group and determining any additional impact s/he may have had.More


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