For the third episode of our new yet-to-be named podcast, FDL’s Kevin Gosztola and I speak with Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Project at the ACLU of Massachusetts, about how US authorities at all levels of government have used post-9/11 hysteria to go after activists and militarize the hell out of local police departments. Kade walks us through history, explaining the origins of US government agencies spying on, infiltrating, torturing and killing political dissidents, much of which continues to take place today under the guise of fighting terrorism.

Kade regularly blogs about this stuff at Privacy SOS, which you should definitely check out. You can follow her on twitter at @onekade.

After having our minds blown by Kade’s brilliant and terrifying analysis, Kevin and I go on to discuss recent news items, including Scarlett Johansson’s new gig as global brand ambassador for occupation-profiteer Sodastream, the New York State Senate passing an unconstitutional bill to punish academic organizations that endorse boycotting Israel, a disturbing series of lawsuits against police body cavity searches that amount to sexual assault, and more absurdity from the NATO 3 trial. You can listen here:

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And here is the transcript of our interview with Kade:

KEVIN GOSZTOLA, Firedoglake: The first question I have is to pick apart this message that has been put promoted by a lot of people covering surveillance currently as we all have these National Security Agency documents coming out from Snowden. A lot of people are saying this is not that bad. The NSA is not targeting activists. It’s not like the days of COINTELPRO. That’s your cue to take a sledgehammer to that argument

KADE CROCKFORD, ACLU of Massachusetts: It’s a little difficult to prove a negative, right? So when people say the NSA’s not doing X, in particular because the NSA is an extremely secretive organization, it is very difficult to martial evidence to support those claims in the first instance. I would suggest to people who make that claim that everything in the NSA’s history as well as in the CIA’s history and the FBI’s history—and not even just ancient history but relatively recent events over the past ten years—That these agencies basically do whatever they want up to and even beyond the limits of the extremely permissible laws that govern these agencies with respect to all sorts of things; not just spying on dissidents but even killing people, torturing them, etc.

I guess I just have a hard time enduring these kinds of ridiculous platitudes, evidenceless platitudes, from people who clearly have an axe to grind with respect to their apologias for the surveillance state when the organization that they’re claiming do not spy on dissidents are engaged in things like crowd killings. I mean, the NSA and the CIA—the NSA through its signal intelligence and the CIA through its drone program—operate programs where they kill based on the geographic area that they live in and sort of what they can make out from someone’s physical appearance hundred feet away from a robotic killer machine, these drones. So the notion that agencies that kill people in these crowd killing operations, signature strikes, and have run torture dens in these black sites all over the world—The suggestion that spying on dissidents is somehow beyond the pale is just confusing to me. It flies in the face of, frankly, common sense.

And then we have to look at what we already know about the FBI’s behavior, for example, for a long time in this country. COINTELPRO certainly never ended. It definitely changed. I think that the FBI was chastened and a little scared about what happened in the 1970s after an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, was robbed by antiwar activists and a number of files disclosing programs that were aimed not just to monitor activists but to destroy them—were leaked to the press and published in The Washington Post and other newspapers—The FBI freaked out and suddenly activities that had been shrouded behind an iron wall of secrecy and maintained not just by keeping them secret from people but politicians who know about these programs were actually blackmailed into keeping them secret.

In fact, I am reading The Burglary, Betty Medsger’s book about the FBI burglary, and there’s a part of the book where she talks about how after the burglary a congressman called for investigations into the FBI. This was the first time that any congressman had ever called into account J. Edgar Hoover’s handling of the FBI in public. Hoover was livid and flipped out and what he did is truly shocking and I think should serve as a caution to anyone who would suggest that these warrantless surveillance programs today can be maintained with any decency or accountability.

Hoover, in order to keep the FBI out of congressional investigations, went to the White House and said, listen, remember how we were bugging journalists and the president’s speechwriter and all these other people in connection with some other thing? And the Attorney General and the White House signed off on this illegal surveillance? If you allow this congressman to investigate the FBI, I’m going to tell everybody that you guys let me do that.

You don’t have to have someone like J. Edgar Hoover in charge in order for extremely secretive government surveillance programs, that really almost have unlimited funds, to get completely out of control.

There’s something that I wrote about on my blog today is another part of Medsger’s book, which I really recommend. It’s fabulous. It’s a great history and there’s a lot of stuff that’s relevant to the conversations that we’re having today. One of the ways in which law enforcement and these intelligence agencies have been able to justify their surveillance and infiltration and disruption of activist movements is by calling them terrorists. And this is not new.

This has been going on since 9/11. We published a report here in Boston a couple years ago showing that the Boston police department was doing this at its fusion center. There was a story just a couple months ago about activists being charged with so-called terrorism hoax for literally spilling glitter in a dirty energy corporation’s offices, accidentally. That’s not even to mention all of the environmental activists and animal rights activists who the FBI has hounded over the years as so-called eco-terrorists or animal rights terrorists. And some of those people have done things like light fires or whatever but a lot of this is purely nonviolent dissidence.

The origins of this kind of stuff actually come from Richard Helms, the former director of the CIA. He in the 1970s—right after the FBI office was raided and some of the stuff about COINTELPRO started coming out in the process—a number of CIA officers who had a position that was relatively powerful. They were in a position of management where they could actually make recommendations to the director of the CIA about how to change internal operations. They wrote a memo to Richard Helms in 1972 saying we think that the CIA’s domestic surveillance operations directed at dissidents are illegal and we think that they should stop and we’re afraid that they are going to be leaked. And we’re afraid that the public is going to find out about this and it will do serious damage to the CIA’s credibility and it will mean that our international operations they might be subject to investigation as well or someone might meddle into our external affairs. So we should really cut out this domestic spying, which was illegal at the time flatly because the CIA’s charter said it was not allowed to do anything in the United States.

Helms’ response to this was essentially to say, no, we’re definitely not going to stop spying on dissidents. By the way, some of that spying included a massive CIA operation that was directed specifically at destroying alternative news organizations in the United States. They were spying on and disrupting over 500 alternative newspapers at one time. And they succeeded in a lot of those. I think the operation was called Operation Mockingbird. But, anyway, Helms’ response to this internal dissent in the CIA saying we should cut this out was to say what we’re going to do instead is to start labeling political dissidents as international terrorists. They literally did that.

This group before Helms changed the name had been called MHCHAOS. This was the codename for the domestic surveillance programs. He changed the name of the group to International Terrorism. And I think it’s really obvious that this legacy remains with us today. I mean, you look at the way the NYPD treats dissent in New York City on the street. This is not secret. The NYPD is terrified of dissent—pepper-spraying people who are standing on a public sidewalk, conducting mass arrests, spying on dissidents who are involved in Occupy and the stop-and-frisk movement.

It certainly has not gone away and I think in a lot of ways it’s gotten worse in part because in the post-9/11 situation we’re living in a world in which DHS, the Department of Justice and other arms of the federal government are funding state and local law enforcement to the tune of billions to purchase all sorts of military-grade surveillance equipment. So the sort of 1960s Red Squads are basically a joke—

RANIA KHALEK: That’s actually what I wanted to ask you about, Kade, because that’s something that you write about a lot that other people who cover the surveillance state don’t discuss, is the connection with local law enforcement and the impact it has on local law enforcement and the way that they police. Could you talk about that?

CROCKFORD: Since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, I guess twelve or thirteen years ago now, the DHS has been giving these grants through FEMA actually to every level of state and local law enforcement to purchase all sorts of military-grade surveillance gear as well as to develop these things called fusion centers, which are basically spy centers that are run by state and local government at which members of private companies—so potentially dirty energy companies, transit companies, companies like FedEx and DHL—have representatives at these fusion centers. Also, the National Guard, the FBI, members of the Department of Homeland Security’s Intelligence and Analysis Office—all these people are staffed sitting next to state and local cops all over the country.

There are 72 of these fusion centers that DHS paid for. So, it’s not just the high-tech surveillance equipment that’s being deployed on the streets to spy on protesters. Like, for example, at Occupy Wall Street, a security researcher said that it was commonplace for NYPD to walk around at Zuccotti Park with what are called cellphone sniffers, which can fit in a backpack actually. They’re quite small. And what it does is it intercepts signals that cell phones are sending. Thinking that the cell phones are sending them to cell phone towers, this little device actually intercepts that signal and so has not only the capability to identify everyone who is in that geographic area based on the information their cell phone is sending but also communications from those devices. And we have good reason to believe that the FBI deploys this technology without warrant throughout the United States. The NYPD does as well, we’ve heard in New York City, and directly targeting dissidents with that sort of high-tech military-grade surveillance technology.

There’s that stuff is on that street, and, of course, huge expenditures to blanket our urban areas with high-tech surveillance cameras, many of which are networked into regional or citywide systems that even federal agencies have direct access to view. So there’s a lot of that physical surveillance but there’s also been this construction in the background of a network of sharing capabilities. So we have no Keystone Kops who have not been trained in the proper methods of intelligence collection or protecting privacy or civil liberties oftentimes working in a field that for a long time had been dominated by the FBI, which is counterterrorism, so-called intelligence collection. And they’re sharing this information widely across state and local police departments, through these fusion centers and then also up into the federal government through DHS and the FBI.

What we’ve seen through some of these programs, particularly something called suspicious activity reporting, which a lot of people will know by its creepy Stasi slogan, “See something, say something”—This program in particular has been proven across the country in numerous different situations to essentially be a racial profiling alert system. So, you know, people on the train in Washington, DC, who sees a person who appears to look Arab checking his watch gets reported to the police, and this report is then sent up the chain to the FBI and the FBI has to investigate all of these leads. In the vast majority of cases, it’s absolutely nothing.

As far as we know, these fusion centers have thus far provided zero value in terms of federal anti-terrorism efforts. On the other hand, they are extremely adept at spying on dissidents. So, we had, for just one of many, many examples, a case in Pennsylvania where it was discovered that the Pennsylvania fusion center was actually working with a fracking company to spy on anti-fracking dissidents. This was a direct collaboration between a corporation that would potentially suffer as a result of anti-fracking organizing with a so-called anti-terrorism fusion center, which was in fact using its resources to basically undermine peaceful political protest in Pennsylvania. And as a result of that actually, actor Mark Ruffalo was put on an anti-terrorist No Fly list because he was involved with this anti-fracking work.

Across the board, the notion that the CIA and the FBI are not doing this or the NSA is really funny to me given that we know for a fact local cops are doing this. If local police have the resources and the capability and the freedom frankly to spy on dissidents without any sort of criminal predicate, then it’s really just laughable to assume that agencies like the FBI and the CIA, which have long, long disgustingly dirty histories of doing this to activists in the United States would refrain from doing so.

GOSZTOLA: But then you also have the private companies that are sending out or have their own set of spies that are engaged in work. I know you did a post about the Bank of America having their own spies. Can you briefly discuss that?

CROCKFORD: Some private citizen did a public records request in Washington state to learn a little bit more about how Occupy members were being monitored by the Washington state patrol and in some of the emails that this person received in response to their public records request were emails from a vice president for security from Bank of America. And in the emails, this person who identified herself as a former Washington state police officer, said things like you can rely on us. The Washington state patrol is not really good at keeping tabs on these online dissidents. You can rely on us because we have twenty full-time social media people and this is what we do all day. So, we’ll collect the intel. We’ll monitor these anti-banking activists, these economic justice activists online, and we’ll feed you all the information you need about so-called anarchists and people involved in May Day protests and the Occupy people.

KHALEK: Kade, you’re like an encyclopedia on this stuff. It’s like incredible. I’m blown away right now. I’m just holy crap. You know so much.

CROCKFORD: Yeah, I’m really uplifting at parties. You should invite me to some.

KHALEK: No, it’s amazing. A lot of this stuff I haven’t heard anyone else connect the way you did. So I don’t know why—well, I do know why—it’s a shame that you are not on network television. [laughing]

CROCKFORD: I don’t know why they don’t invite me more.

KHALEK: I don’t know why. I don’t get it. [laughing]

GOSZTOLA: One of the last questions I have is, since I have been here in Chicago covering this trial of these three men known as the “NATO 3″ right now, I’ve come to learn a lot about what the Chicago police department was doing prior to this NATO meeting. I was hoping to get your comments on what some of what you might have seen coming out. I know you did a post reacting to what you were seeing coming out of the trial. Specifically talk about the advantages or how these agencies take advantage of these national special security events to expand their surveillance operations.

CROCKFORD: That’s a really critical point that I think a lot of people miss and that goes undiscussed in the national and regime press. This is a major problem. Every time there is what is called a national special security event. There’s actually a term for this in federal law. This is another result of the post-9/11 hysteria over terrorism and the translation of that hysteria into almost limitless funds and power for any agency that slaps counterterrorism onto its mission.

The national special security event designation does a lot of things. It, first of all, immediately strips protesters of a bunch of their rights. It amps up penalties for arrests within certain no-go red zones near the epicenter of these event, like the DNC, RNC, special presidential events and things like the Olympics or major sporting events like the Super Bowl or something like this. Anytime any event gets this designation of national security special event, dissidents will be faced with extra penalties if they’re arrested in certain zones. In fact, arrests within the red zone I believe is a ten-year federal sentence. It’s a felony.

In the run-up to these events, because of course they take a long time to plan and a huge part of the planning is the so-called planning for them—In the years running up to the events, what always happens is state and local government in the cities in which these events take place are showered with millions or even hundreds of millions for the purchase of extremely advanced network surveillance systems.

We saw this happen in Tampa with the RNC. We saw this happen with the DNC in the last election. We are certainly going to see it happen if the Olympics come to a United States city in the next few years, which is actually one of the major reasons I as a Boston resident oppose the Olympics coming to the city of Boston. Boston is making a bid for the Olympics and I think it would be an absolute disaster for the city because once these surveillance systems and crowd-control equipment and militarized gear for the police departments and the SWAT teams in the areas—Once this is given to the local police departments and the fusion centers, it doesn’t go away. They’re not renting this equipment just for the special events themselves. All of that stuff sticks around.

Like we saw with the “NATO 3,” what comes with all of this security equipment and newfound integration and relationships among local governments and the FBI and DHS and the US military—What comes along with that is, I believe—and this is more of an argument than something I can prove—but it seems to me what comes along with all of that physical equipment and those relationships and the money is a hysteria about turning dissidents into terrorists.

Frankly, thankfully, there really haven’t been really any major terrorist attacks in the United States. We had the bombing at the Boston Marathon, which was obviously awful, but nothing at the scale of 9/11 or anything that I think would justify these massive expenditures and the hits to the rights of protesters that we’ve seen. And so in the absence of real terrorist threats, which as far as I know there weren’t any actual terrorist events to the NATO gathering in Chicago a few years ago, police departments are doing whatever they can to manufacture them. So then we have the Chicago police department actually acting in cue from the FBI’s moves over the past ten years doing what appears to be troubling behavior that borders on entrapment with these young men who are now being charged under a state terrorism statute.

It’s not only the new technologies. It’s not only the new relationships. It’s also this sick, cancerous mode of operating and thinking that law enforcement inculcates that assumes that anything that challenges these national security special events should be looked at as a potential terrorist threat. And that’s frankly anti-democratic. It’s very totalitarian in essence, the idea that anyone challenging anyone powerful, no matter how peaceful, is a potential terrorist or a threat to the state. That’s really alarming and I think more and more we’re seeing the government act as if any resistance, any dissidence at all, is akin to terrorism.

GOSZTOLA: Thanks, Kade. We’re glad you were able to join us and talk for this week’s show. So thank you for coming.

CROCKFORD: Well thanks for having me guys.