The FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO program against activists ended in the early 1970s, but the practice of spying on people because of their political and religious beliefs continues. The API community in Seattle knows the impact of government surveillance all too well.

In 1977, a Seattle activist was arrested for a ‘traffic violation’ and interrogated by police who demanded the names of other activists. The activist group, the Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP), suspected the arrest was the result of government spying and infiltration. Six years later, the KDP confirmed its suspicions when it obtained 1,300 pages of surveillance intelligence collected by the FBI.

Eventually, the KDP uncovered hundreds of pages proving that the U.S. Naval Intelligence Service Agency had monitored its activities. Most notable was a Defense Intelligence Agency secret document revealing the FBI’s knowledge of and cooperation with the “Philippine Infiltration Plan.” This plan allowed then-Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos’s agents to come to the U.S. with the purpose to “spy, harass and move against” the U.S.-based anti-Marcos movement. The plan ultimately led to the assassination of activists Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes in Seattle in June 1981.Government surveillance continues in Washington today:

• A Fort Lewis military employee assumed a false identity and joined several anti-war groups. For two years, he fed information about the groups back to the military and police.

• Police wrongfully arrested Phil Chinn, an API student activist, for driving under the influence while on his way to an anti-war demonstration. He sued police after learning that they were instructed to stop his car to keep him from attending the protest, as it contained “three identified anarchists.” Represented by the ACLU of Washington, Chinn received a hefty settlement from three government agencies.

• An undercover University of Washington Police officer attended meetings of the Student Worker Coalition in clear violation of University policy. The infiltration only ended because students later encountered the officer on campus in uniform, blowing her cover.

This “new wave” of surveillance gained momentum across the country after 9/11. In Washington, surveillance efforts have also been influenced by the World Trade Organization protests in 1999 in Seattle. In response, the government has created an intelligence bureaucracy that treats people as suspects without evidence of criminal conduct, limiting our freedom without making us safer.

Law enforcement agencies have turned their focus to “Suspicious Activity Reporting” that encourages officers to collect and report to the federal government information about people engaged in legal but “suspicious” conduct. According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “suspicious activities” include photography, note-taking, and observation of public places and events. This vague definition of “suspicious activities” has led police officers nationwide to stop, detain and even arrest photographers just for taking photos on public property. Officials justify these efforts as necessary for “public safety” or “national security” though the “suspicious activity” involved no criminal conduct or threats to safety.

Currently, the law does not prevent officers from engaging in political surveillance. However, in 2011, legislation will be introduced in Olympia to allow the government to gather information about political and religious beliefs only with a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Our state legislators need to take action to stop unwarranted political surveillance and use our public resources on efforts that will make us safer while protecting our rights.

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