Ten Years Later: FBI’s Politically Motivated Sting Operation and Raid Still Unjustified and and Epic Fail

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In the early morning of September 24, 2010, 70 FBI agents raided the homes of anti-war and peace activists throughout the Midwest. These activists learned that they had been targets of a years long undercover sting operation that attempted to disrupt their organizing by luring them into providing material support of terrorism. (Spoiler alert, they committed no crime, despite the best efforts of undercover agent #1 “Karen Sullivan” to entrap them).  The FBI invested over two years and hundreds of hours in their operation against the Freedom Road Socialist Movement and allied groups. It was, to put it mildly, a waste and an epic fail. 10 years later, these organizers have not been indicted, have not been jailed, and are still organizing.

Join Defending Rights and Dissent on Saturday, September 26 at 4 PM (ET)/ 1 PM (PT) to hear from some of the organizers whose homes were raided and belongings seized, about their fightback against a grand jury and the FBI.

10 Years After the Raids: The Fight for Our Movement – Lessons for Today from the Past

Saturday, September 26, 2020

4 p.m. Eastern time / 1 p.m. Pacific time

The event will be livestreamed on Facebook.

Related: Five Years Later: Last Target of FBI Witchhunt Faces Jail, Deportation

Related: Solidarity Foils FBI’s Material Support Habit

DRAD also tells the story of the operation, and the tragic outcome for one woman who got ensnared in the FBI’s tentacles, in our report, Still Spying on Dissent. It is excerpted below.

On September 24, 2010, the FBI raided the offices of the Minneapolis-based Anti-War Committee and the homes of eight antiwar activists in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Chicago, Illinois, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Search warrants cited as justification a federal statute prohibiting material support for State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations, specifically the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).[i] A list of questions mistakenly left behind by FBI agents showed they had special questions for suspected members of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), a small, self-described Marxist-Leninist organization. These questions included, “Are you a member?” “Who are the other members in Minneapolis (or Chicago)?” “Are there regular FRSO chapter meetings?” “Do you or anyone else at the meeting, or with the FRSO, take notes?” [ii]

No one had been charged with a crime, but 14 individuals were summoned to appear before a grand jury. Rejecting what they viewed as a fishing expedition, all 14 refused to testify before the grand jury. Over time, the FBI would subpoena additional antiwar and Palestinian solidarity activists to testify before the grand jury. Eventually, 23 people in total would be subpoenaed.[iii] No one ever testified. To this date, no one has been charged with material support for terrorism in connection with the FBI raids.

What led to these raids in the first place? After a lengthy fight, in February 2014, the application for the search warrants, including a probable cause affidavit, was unsealed. This affidavit revealed the basis for the search rested entirely on an undercover FBI agent who used the fake name Karen Sullivan. Activists had previously outed Sullivan as an infiltrator in 2011.[iv] In April 2008, Sullivan began infiltrating activist groups in the run-up to the Republican National Convention, which was being held in St. Paul, Minnesota. Sullivan set her sights on the Anti-War Committee, which was organizing an antiwar protest at the convention.  In 2009, a full year after her infiltration had begun, Sullivan joined the FRSO.[v] Sullivan appears to have recorded many of her conversations with FRSO members. She claimed she uncovered the FRSO had a secret purpose, plotting to overthrow the U.S. government in a socialist revolution. However, Sullivan does not allege the FRSO had any means or actual plans to do so, and the mere advocacy of revolution is protected by the First Amendment.[vi]

Later into her infiltration, Sullivan purportedly discovered the group was providing material support for State Department-designated Foreign Terrorism Organizations. Conduct listed in the affidavit as material support includes broad statements of political agreement with FARC and the PFLP—positions that are on FRSO’s publicly facing website—and statements such as “Commies fighting for liberation in other countries? We love those guys,” and “one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.”  Repeatedly throughout the affidavit, FRSO members are quoted as mentioning they neither give military aid nor any other aid to organizations classified as terrorists by the U.S. government, as doing so would put them in legal jeopardy. The affidavit goes on to speculate that support for legal trade unions in Colombia or a women’s group in Palestine could be a way to get money to members of the prohibited organizations.

 Clearly, the FBI did not believe these speculative ties were sufficient to constitute material support for terrorism. Well into her infiltration, Sullivan turned it into a sting operation and began telling her FRSO members that her father had bequeathed her $1,000 to give to the PFLP. She approached numerous members, asking them to accept the money in cash to get it to the PFLP. One member allegedly finally took the cash, four months before the raids. Journalist Kevin Gosztola has pointed out numerous problems with the way these statements are interpreted or portrayed in the affidavit.[vii] The “conspiracy” was entirely crafted by the undercover FBI agent. [O1] 

Sullivan’s actions raise a number of questions. She purports to have discovered the FRSO’s secret mission, which was constitutionally protected teaching of standard Marxist-Leninist doctrine, and eventually its alleged material support for terrorism well over a year into her infiltration. Why then was she infiltrating progressive groups in Minnesota in the first place? Why was her infiltration allowed continue for a full year before she “discovered” the supposed FRSO material support? Much of the information that Sullivan supposedly uncovered through spycraft can be found by searching FRSO’s website. If Sullivan and the FBI really believed the FRSO had ways to get money to the PFLP, they were surprisingly nonchalant about handing over $1,000 cash to give to the PLFP.

The FBI’s fishing expedition still claimed victims. On May 17, 2011, a Los Angeles Police Department SWAT team raided longtime Chicano rights activist Carlos Montes’ home. Montes had a registered firearm. As he was convicted of throwing a Coke can at a police officer during a protest in the 1960s, police argued he was illegally in possession of a firearm and seized Montes’ computer, cell phone, and computer discs. FBI agents were present for the raid. But state-level charges are not in the purview of the FBI, nor were the seized computers likely to reveal much about his registered firearm. An FBI agent present told Montes, “I want to talk to you about Freedom Road Socialist Organization.”[viii] Prosecutors brought additional charges, carrying lengthy prison time, against Montes, who eventually pleaded no contest to perjury in exchange for the dropping of all other charges. Montes was sentenced to three years’ probation and community service.[ix]

Rasmea Odeh was also ensnared by the FBI’s raid. While Odeh was not a target of the original raids, her co-worker at the Arab American Action Network, Hatem Abudayyeh, was. It is believed that this is how Odeh came to be targeted by the FBI.[x] Odeh had lived in the U.S. since 1994 and had been a U.S. citizen since 2004. Odeh, who had previously lived in the occupied West Bank, was found guilty by an Israeli military court of a supermarket bombing that killed two people. Israeli military courts in the occupied West Bank have a 99.74% conviction rate.[xi] For decades, Odeh has maintained that her conviction was the result of a confession coerced through torture.[xii] Even though Odeh had been outspoken about being a torture survivor, in 2013 she was indicted for immigration fraud on the grounds that she had omitted her conviction by an occupying power’s military court to U.S. immigration officials.[xiii] Odeh rejected an initial plea deal that would have allowed her to avoid prison time, but lose her citizenship.[xiv] During her trial, the defense was not allowed to enter evidence of Odeh’s torture or post-traumatic stress disorder, but the prosecution was allowed to mention the bombing she was accused of.[xv] She was convicted of immigration fraud and sentenced to 18 months in prison and loss of citizenship, meaning she would be deported at the end of her sentence. This conviction was vacated. Odeh eventually accepted a plea agreement. She served no jail time, but lost her citizenship and was deported.[xvi]

[i] “FBI Raids Homes of Antiwar and Pro-Palestinian Activists in Chicago and Minneapolis,” Democracy Now! (September 27, 2010). Available at https://www.democracynow.org/2010/9/27/fbi_raids_homes_of_anti_war.

[ii] http://www.stopfbi.net/sites/default/files/3-Interrogation%20Questions.pdf

[iii] Andy Grimm, “More anti-war activists subpoenaed, attorney says,” Chicago Tribune (December 23, 2010). Available at https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2010-12-23-ct-met-anti-war-subpoenas-20101223-story.html.

[iv] Press Release, “Anti-War and International Solidarity Activists Denounce FBI Infiltration,” Committee to Stop FBI Repression (January 12, 2011). Available at http://www.stopfbi.net/2011/1/12/anti-war-and-international-solidarity-activists-denounce-fbi-infiltration.

[v] Kevin Gosztola, “Undercover FBI Agent Tried to Get Activists to Send Money to PFLP, a US-Designated Terrorist Organization,“ Shadowproof (Febuary 28, 2014).  Available at https://shadowproof.com/2014/02/28/undercover-fbi-agent-tried-to-get-activists-to-send-money-to-pflp-a-us-designated-terrorist-organization/.

[vi] The description of Sullivan’s infiltration in this section comes from the probable cause affidavit in support of the warrant, which can be viewed here: http://www.stopfbi.net/sites/default/files/Search%20Warrant%20Files%20Part%20I%20r.pdf.

[vii] Kevin Gosztola, “Undercover FBI Agent Tried to Get Activists to Send Money to PFLP, a US-Designated Terrorist Organization,“ Shadowproof (Febuary 28, 2014). Available at https://shadowproof.com/2014/02/28/undercover-fbi-agent-tried-to-get-activists-to-send-money-to-pflp-a-us-designated-terrorist-organization/.

[viii] Chris Hedges, “Carlos Montes and the Security State: A Cautionary Tale,” Truthdig (July 11, 2011). Available at https://www.truthdig.com/articles/carlos-montes-and-the-security-state-a-cautionary-tale/.

[ix] Shayna Rose Arnold, “Chicano Activist Carlos Montes Sentenced in Perjury Case,” LA Magazine  (June 6, 2012) Available at https://www.lamag.com/citythinkblog/chicano-activist-carlos-montes-sentenced-in-p1/.

[x] Mark Mondalek, “The Campaign Against Rasmea Odeh,” Jacobin (October 13, 2015). Available at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/10/rasmea-odeh-palestine-israel-midwest-23-bds-fbi/.

[xi] Charlotte Silver, “Will Rasmea Odeh Go to Prison Because of a Confession Obtained Through Torture?,” The Nation (November 4, 2014). Available at  https://www.thenation.com/article/will-rasmeah-odeh-go-prison-because-confession-obtained-through-torture/.

[xii] Charlotte Silver, “Will Rasmea Odeh Go to Prison Because of a Confession Obtained Through Torture?,” The Nation (November 4, 2014). Available at  https://www.thenation.com/article/will-rasmeah-odeh-go-prison-because-confession-obtained-through-torture/.

[xiii] Charlotte Silver, “Will Rasmea Odeh Go to Prison Because of a Confession Obtained Through Torture?,” The Nation (November 4, 2014). Available at  https://www.thenation.com/article/will-rasmeah-odeh-go-prison-because-confession-obtained-through-torture/.

[xiv] Ali Abunimah, “Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh rejects US plea deal, prepares for October trial,” Electronic Intifada (May 28, 2014). Available at https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/rasmea-odeh-unbowed-judge-passes-sentence.

[xv] Charlotte Silver, “US demands long prison term for Rasmea Odeh, based on Israeli accusations,” Electronic Intifada (Febuary 26, 2015). Available at https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/charlotte-silver/us-demands-long-prison-term-rasmea-odeh-based-israeli-accusations.

[xvi] “Activist Rasmea Odeh to leave U.S.,”The Associated Press (March 23, 2017). Available at https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/nation/2017/03/23/israel-activist/99565318/.