Dubbed “Ferguson to Madison,” the rally drew striking social parallels between the two cities.
He was very well dressed. He claimed he’d been in the military. But he said when he was ordered to go to Iraq, he refused and was granted conscientious objector status.
That’s how activists in Iowa City are now recalling a person they believe was working undercover for the FBI.
He went by the name of “Jason,” and later changed his name to “Val,” they say.
And he joined their group as they were planning protests for the Republican National Convention in St. Paul last year.
“He was an active organizer,” says David Goodner, of the University of Iowa Anti-War Committee. “He gave speeches with other Iraq vets against the war and played a very high-profile role in our group.”
He even served as moderator for at least one of their meetings, a web search shows. The meeting was held at the Iowa City Public Library on August 21, 2008, just ten days before the Republican National Convention. He then went to St. Paul with the group, ostensibly as a medic.
“He knew the activist lingo,” Goodner says. “He could speak the slang. And he had instant credibility because he said he was a CO.”
Another Iowa City group, the Wild Rose Rebellion, first publicly aired the accusation that “Jason”/“Val” was informing to the FBI in an Infoshop News posting of December 17. “The purpose of this statement is to warn all radical organizations and people,” read the posting, which was signed WRR.
The Des Moines Register then busted the story wide open on May 17.
Robert Ehl, who goes by the name Ajax, was one of the founders of the Wild Rose Rebellion. The informant “was at the very first meeting at the library,” says Ehl, adding that he didn’t have an inkling that he might be undercover. “We would go and hang out with him—me and him and a couple of people at a bar or somebody’s apartment.”
Ehl was imprecise about how he found out about the informant.
“Through a series of events that I can’t go into, it became apparent that he was,” Ehl says. “I confronted him. He admitted it.”
Three FBI documents obtained by The Progressive show the extent of the monitoring of the Iowa City activists.
Entitled “Confidential Human Source (CHS) Reporting Document,” each one was written by FBI Special Agent Thomas J. Reinwart on the material provided by the informant, who was “in person” at the events.
The first one, with a reporting date of August 6, 2008, began: “CHS is aware of a group of individuals who could be considered an anarchist collective in the Iowa City, Iowa, area.” The group was formed, the document says, “to organize for various protest activities at the Republican National Convention (RNC) and the Democratic National Convention (DNC).” It said the people in the group could be divided into “green,” “yellow,” and “red.” The “green” people would provide medical and legal assistance. The “yellow” ones “were described as peaceful protestors.” The “red” ones are “willing to risk arrest and who will potentially be involved in criminal activities.” The group was meeting at the Iowa City Public Library, the document notes.
The second document, dated August 18, 2008, went into great detail describing some of the activists, “based upon CHS’s knowledge of each person.”
For instance, one is “described as a white female, 5’10”, 140 pounds, blonde hair and glasses.” The informant provided her cell number, and the document says, “She drives a little dark green four door hatchback.” She is characterized as “Absolute Green.”
Another is described as a “26 year old white female, shorter maybe 5’4”, skinny, reddish shoulder length hair and glasses.” The document gave the street that she lived on and said she was “more ‘green’ than ‘yellow.’ ” It added: “She helps put together a lot and organize meetings, travels a lot with [name blotted out] and goes to a lot of anarchist, socialist, communist type conventions.”
A third person was described as an “Anarchist communist” and “Anti-authoritarian.”
The document also identified where several activists worked.
The “criminal acts” that the document said the group might be planning consisted of “blocking a bridge in the vicinity of the convention center” or “block off-ramps on an expressway north of the convention center via bike blockade or tipping a car.”
The document says that “CHS is not aware of any specific threats to any candidates, dignitaries, or delegates.”
The informant noted that on a map of the St. Paul area put out by a national activist group, “there were various company headquarters highlighted on the map, such as Lockheed Martin. There were no specific threats toward the highlighted companies.”
But it appears that the informant raised the possibility with the Iowa City group of going after those companies. “CHS took these highlights to show people what companies are in the area in case they wanted to [blanked out] or do something.”
The last document, dated August 20, 2008, first describes a meeting of activists at a local restaurant. “CHS was suppose to be called about this meeting by [blanked out] but was not.”
It then describes “two males” who “gave a presentation at a [blanked out] conference at the University of Iowa” over the past summer. One was described as “a white male, short, approximately 5’7”, skinny, thick glasses, mullet type hair style and talked with a lisp.” The other: “a white male, 6’0”, 190 pounds, short brown hair, clean shaven.”
The document goes into detail about those who attended an activist meeting on August 16 again at the Iowa City Public Library. One is described as a white female with a southern accent, “heavy-set, 5’5”, 200 pounds, short hair a bad complexion, and wearing a bandana.”
At the end of the document it says: “Based upon a previous tasking, CHS provided a listing of known email addresses for members.” It proceeded to list them, though they are blotted out on the document The Progressive obtained.
Reached by The Progressive, the FBI spokeswoman in Omaha, Sandy Breault, declined to respond to specific questions about this story.
“Our legal counsel would not let me say anything,” she said. “Sorry, I wish I could say more.”
Randall Wilson, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa, said his group is not currently planning on taking legal action, though he has been in contact with some of the activists.
“We’re disappointed but not surprised,” he says. “We’re not surprised because it’s not the first time FBI has been exposed in recent years putting peace groups under surveillance. We’re disappointed because we believe the FBI has better things to do.”
Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey had a similar response.
“Yeah, it’s surprising,” she says, “but is it surprising? It’s been happening for years.” She says she’s received some correspondence from constituents about this, and one person made a public comment about it at the May 19 city council meeting.
“I haven’t heard from my colleagues about what we’d like to do,” she says, though she did express displeasure at the spying at the city’s public library. “It is concerning,” she says.
The activists are concerned, too, since the infiltration has corroded morale in their groups, says David Goodner.
“There’s been a lot of effect on group unity and group cohesion,” Goodner says. “This guy was with us for a year. A lot of people thought of him as a friend. Issues of trust have been brought up. We’re trying to work through it. But it’s put a lot of people on edge. How is it going to affect their lives? Could people get fired? Some people are in custody battles for their kids and worry that their exposure could affect the outcome.”
Dr. Susan Goodner is not amused that her son was spied upon, though it did bring back memories.
“I was part of a campus anti-war group in Iowa City that was infiltrated by the FBI in 1970,” she says. Her reaction to the current infiltration: “It’s pretty pathetic.”