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The Face of a Terrorist

Posted on Sunday, 29th May 2011 @ 10:38 AM by Text Size A | A | A

AUSTIN, Tex. — A fat sheaf of F.B.I. reports meticulously details the
surveillance that counterterrorism agents directed at the one-story
house in East Austin. For at least three years, they traced the license
plates of cars parked out front, recorded the comings and goings of
residents and guests and, in one case, speculated about a suspicious
flat object spread out across the driveway.

Multimedia
Caleb Bryant Miller for The New York Times

Mr. Crow and an F.B.I. document he received under the
Freedom of Information Act.

“The content could not be determined from the street,” an agent
observing from his car reported one day in 2005. “It had a large number
of multi-colored blocks, with figures and/or lettering,” the report
said, and “may be a sign that is to be used in an upcoming protest.”

Actually, the item in question was more mundane.
“It was a quilt,” said Scott Crow, marveling over the papers at the
dining table of his ramshackle home, where he lives with his wife, a
housemate and a backyard menagerie that includes two goats, a dozen
chickens and a turkey. “For a kids’ after-school program.”
Mr. Crow, 44, a self-described anarchist and veteran organizer of
anticorporate demonstrations, is among dozens of political activists
across the country known to have come under scrutiny from the F.B.I.’s
increased counterterrorism operations since the attacks of Sept. 11,
2001.
Other targets of bureau surveillance, which has been criticized by civil
liberties groups and mildly faulted by the Justice Department’s
inspector general, have included antiwar activists in Pittsburgh, animal
rights advocates in Virginia and liberal Roman Catholics in Nebraska.
When such investigations produce no criminal charges, their methods
rarely come to light publicly.
But Mr. Crow, a lanky Texas native who works at a recycling center, is
one of several Austin activists who asked the F.B.I. for their files,
citing the Freedom of Information Act. The 440 heavily-redacted pages he
received, many bearing the rubric “Domestic Terrorism,” provide a
revealing window on the efforts of the bureau, backed by other federal,
state and local police agencies, to keep an eye on people it deems
dangerous.
In the case of Mr. Crow, who has been arrested a dozen times during
demonstrations but has never been convicted of anything more serious
than trespassing, the bureau wielded an impressive array of tools, the
documents show.
The agents watched from their cars for hours at a time — Mr. Crow
recalls one regular as “a fat guy in an S.U.V. with the engine running
and the air-conditioning on” — and watched gatherings at a bookstore and
cafe. For round-the-clock coverage, they attached a video camera to the
phone pole across from his house on New York Avenue.
They tracked Mr. Crow’s phone calls and e-mails and combed through his
trash, identifying his bank and mortgage companies, which appear to have
been served with subpoenas. They visited gun stores where he shopped
for a rifle, noting dryly in one document that a vegan
animal rights advocate like Mr. Crow made an unlikely hunter. (He says
the weapon was for self-defense in a marginal neighborhood.)
They asked the Internal Revenue Service to examine his tax returns, but
backed off after an I.R.S. employee suggested that Mr. Crow’s modest
earnings would not impress a jury even if his returns were flawed. (He
earns $32,000 a year at Ecology Action of Texas, he said.)
They infiltrated political meetings with undercover police officers and
informers. Mr. Crow counts five supposed fellow activists who were
reporting to the F.B.I.
Mr. Crow seems alternately astonished, angered and flattered by the
government’s attention. “I’ve had times of intense paranoia,” he said,
especially when he discovered that some trusted allies were actually
spies.
“But first, it makes me laugh,” he said. “It’s just a big farce that the
government’s created such paper tigers. Al Qaeda and real terrorists
are hard to find. We’re easy to find. It’s outrageous that they would
spend so much money surveilling civil activists, and anarchists in
particular, and equating our actions with Al Qaeda.”
The investigation of political activists is an old story for the F.B.I.,
most infamously in the Cointel program, which scrutinized and sometimes
harassed civil rights and antiwar advocates from the 1950s to the
1970s. Such activities were reined in after they were exposed by the
Senate’s Church Committee, and F.B.I. surveillance has been governed by
an evolving set of guidelines set by attorneys general since 1976.
But the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 demonstrated the lethal danger of
domestic terrorism, and after the Sept. 11 attacks, the F.B.I. vowed
never again to overlook terrorists hiding in plain sight. The Qaeda
sleeper cells many Americans feared, though, turned out to be rare or
nonexistent.
The result, said Michael German, a former F.B.I. agent now at the
American Civil Liberties Union, has been a zeal to investigate political
activists who pose no realistic threat of terrorism.
“You have a bunch of guys and women all over the country sent out to
find terrorism. Fortunately, there isn’t a lot of terrorism in many
communities,” Mr. German said. “So they end up pursuing people who are
critical of the government.”
Complaints from the A.C.L.U. prompted the Justice Department’s inspector
general to assess the F.B.I.’s forays into domestic surveillance. The
resulting report last September absolved the bureau of investigating
dissenters based purely on their expression of political views. But the
inspector general also found skimpy justification for some
investigations, uncertainty about whether any federal crime was even
plausible in others and a mislabeling of nonviolent civil disobedience
as “terrorism.”
Asked about the surveillance of Mr. Crow, an F.B.I. spokesman, Paul E.
Bresson, said it would be “inappropriate” to discuss an individual case.
But he said that investigations are conducted only after the bureau
receives information about possible crimes.
“We do not open investigations based on individuals who exercise the
rights afforded to them under the First Amendment,” Mr. Bresson said.
“In fact, the Department of Justice and the bureau’s own guidelines for
conducting domestic operations strictly forbid such actions.”
It is not hard to understand why Mr. Crow attracted the bureau’s
attention. He has deliberately confronted skinheads and Ku Klux Klan
members at their gatherings, relishing the resulting scuffles. He claims
to have forced corporate executives to move with noisy nighttime
protests.
He says he took particular pleasure in a 2003 demonstration for
Greenpeace in which activists stormed the headquarters of ExxonMobil in
Irving, Tex., to protest its environmental record. Dressed in tiger
outfits, protesters carried banners to the roof of the company’s
offices, while others wearing business suits arrived in chauffeured
Jaguars, forcing frustrated police officers to sort real executives from
faux ones.
“It was super fun,” said Mr. Crow, one of the suits, who escaped while
36 other protesters were arrested. “They had ignored us and ignored us.
But that one got their attention.”
It got the attention of the F.B.I. as well, evidently, leading to the
three-year investigation that focused specifically on Mr. Crow. The
surveillance documents show that he also turned up in several other
investigations of activism in Texas and beyond, from 2001 to at least
2008.
For an aficionado of civil disobedience, Mr. Crow comes across as more
amiable than combative. He dropped out of college, toured with an
electronic-rock band and ran a successful Dallas antiques business while
dabbling in animal rights advocacy. In 2001, captivated by the
philosophy of anarchism, he sold his share of the business and decided
to become a full-time activist.
Since then, he has led a half-dozen groups and run an annual training
camp for protesters. (The camps invariably attracted police infiltrators
who were often not hard to spot. “We had a rule,” he said. “If you were
burly, you didn’t belong.”) He also helped to found Common Ground
Relief, a network of nonprofit organizations created in New Orleans
after Hurricane
Katrina
.
Anarchism was the catchword for an international terrorist movement at
the turn of the 20th century. But Mr. Crow, whose e-mail address
contains the phrase “quixotic dreaming,” describes anarchism as a kind
of locally oriented self-help movement, a variety of “social
libertarianism.”
“I don’t like the state,” he said. “I don’t want to overthrow it, but I
want to create alternatives to it.”
This kind of talk appears to have baffled some of the agents assigned to
watch him, whose reports to F.B.I. bosses occasionally seem petulant.
One agent calls “nonviolent direct action,” a phrase in activists’
materials, “an oxymoron.” Another agent comments, oddly, on Mr. Crow and
his wife, Ann Harkness, who have been together for 24 years, writing
that “outwardly they did not appear to look right for each other.” At a
training session, “most attendees dressed like hippies.”
Such comments stand out amid detailed accounts of the banal: mail in the
recycling bin included “a number of catalogs from retail outlets such
as Neiman Marcus, Ann Taylor and Pottery Barn.”
Mr. Crow said he hoped the airing of such F.B.I. busywork might deter
further efforts to keep watch over him. The last documents he has seen
mentioning him date from 2008. But the Freedom of Information Act
exempts from disclosure any investigations that are still open.
“I still occasionally see people sitting in cars across the street,” he
said. “I don’t think they’ve given up.”

A version of this article appeared in print on
May 29, 2011, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: For
Anarchist, Details of Life As F.B.I. Target.

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