Natalie Orenstein

In Richmond, is it safe to eat your garden fruits and veggies?


Questions remain about the safety of eating homegrown fruits and vegetables from gardens in Richmond and other areas affected by a fire at the Chevron refinery August 6.

The official line from Contra Costa County–where residents were told to shelter-in-place during Monday evening’s fire–is to wash the produce in your gardens extra well.

“It’s safe to eat your fruit and vegetables,” said Randy Sawyer, the county’s chief environmenta and hazardous materials officer. “We do recommend that you wash them in a weak soap solution like a dish soap.” If there was harmful residue on the plants, it would be visible, he said. “It wouldn’t be a dust product, it would be sooty.”

But local gardeners and environmentalists beg to differ, and many are anxious about the fire’s potential long-term effect on the area’s urban agriculture. At a tense community meeting on Tuesday night, gardeners from Urban Tilth rolled in wheelbarrows of wilted produce they said was destroyed by the refinery fire, which was contained after a few hours but burned into the night. 

“We have extreme concerns,” Urban Tilth executive director Doria Robinson told the Guardian. “We’re trying to work with soil and air quality scientists to figure out what we need to test and how we can test it to determine what is safe. In the meantime, we can’t stand by the food we have.”

Until we know what chemicals were burning in the fire and what remains in the air, it’s dangerous to assume our garden products are not contamminated, said Robinson, a Richmond resident herself. “If it’s particulate matter or dust, in theory you can wash it off. At the same time, you’re not exactly sure how certain chemicals react. More importantly, if you can wash the plant, what happens to the soil? Heavy metals like mercury are used in some processing. If that stuff was in the plume and it deposited in the soil” there could be lasting detrimental effects on our gardens, she said. 

When a Richmond resident at Tuesday’s community meeting asked what chemicals might be in the air, and Jeff McKay, Deputy Air Pollution Control Officer at Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), listed hydrogen sulfide, benzene, sulfur dioxide, and styrene. All four compounds are either considered poisonous, or suspected to be carcinogens. 

The BAAQMD’ lab analysis report tested for 23 compounds, including Benzene, but not the other three chemicals. Most of the chemicals “have been identified by the state of California as Toxic Air Contaminants,” according to the BAAQMD. And although the same report insists that the air pollution levels were “significantly below federal health standards,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported that 1,700 people ended up in the emergency room with respitory problems during or after the fire. 

Robinson said it is extremely difficult to trace health problems to individual pollutants. 

“The way that companies like Chevron have been able to pollute the air without liability is it’s extremely hard to trace back, and they can point to things like the highways,” she said. “This particular instance was so extreme that if we get a list of what was burning, we might be able to trace it back for the first time.”

Robinson and her team hope to have a plan to test Urban Filth’s produce by Monday, though she said financial barriers will make a comprehensive analysis difficult or impossible. Until the products are deemed safe, the organization is planning on suspending its school programs and refraining from eating from its 11 Richmond gardens, and Robinson urged residents to do the same with their personal plants.

“Before we take someone else’s word for it, we owe it to ourselves and our community” to ensure our food is clean, she said.

Is the War on Fun over, or do we still need to fight for our right to party?


On Monday, the Entertainment Commission brings together a slew of City folk and party people at its fourth annual Nightlife Industry Summit. The three-hour affair includes speeches from Police Chief Greg Suhr, Sup. Scott Weiner, and perhaps Mayor Ed Lee, as well as a panel of speakers, and break-out sessions where club owners, security officers, and outdoor event planners can respectively brainstorm, said commission director Jocelyn Kane.

Past summits have resulted in legislation and policy changes, Kane said, pointing to loitering laws and Sup. David Chiu’s parking lot security legislation last year. This year, Kane thinks there aren’t any pressing problems to address or big controversies that have roiled the commission in past years.

“There’s very little violence and our security staff is much more professionalized than they’ve ever been,” she said. “For me, it’s a year when we can raise the bar in terms of programming inside venues and diversifying the patron experience.”

Club owners and event producers will have some free time to swap tips when the structured portion of the day ends. Kane thinks all neighborhoods should attempt to mimic the Mission, where the wide variety of venues allows a partyer to buy a “big fat martini at Blondies, roll down and eat a burritto, and catch some music at the Elbo Room” as opposed to those who spend the evening on Broadway, where “everyone’s offering the same thing.”

Though Kane couldn’t identify any negative issues on the Summit’s agenda, Opel event producer Syd Gris has plenty of grievances he plans to address on Monday. Gris, who will be speaking on the panel for the first time, said what the Guardian coined as the “War on Fun” in 2006 wages on in 2012.

Gris plans to bring up June’s Opulent Temple Massive on Treasure Island, which was designed to be for visitor aged 18 and over, but the San Francisco Police Department captain that oversaw the event insisted it only allow in those of drinking age, “despite ample precedence of events in the city being 18 and over.”

“For them to deny us the ability to do something that happens all the time in the city just because one captain didn’t like it was unfair and had a huge economic impact,” Gris said. “It’s a great example of what’s wrong with how certain things work in the city. Arbitrary decisions that are inconsistent, unfair, and have a deleterious impact on an event producer can be made by small groups of people.”

His was not a stand alone experience, but part of a broader, Gris said. The mellow Fillmore Jazz Festival had to have beer gardens for the first time this year, Power to the Peaceful was cancelled last September, as was LovEvolution this year after the SFPD places onerous restrictions on it.

“I am certainly glad that the conversation is happening with people that need to be hearing about it,” Gris said of the Summit. “Will a real change come out of it? I’m not optimistic but I certainly hope so.”

The event — held in the Main Library’s Koret Auditorium — is free and open to the public, so come fight for your right to party 1-4pm. 

Protest song


MUSIC Woody Guthrie would have turned 100 this summer, and numerous centennial celebrations mean that hundreds of people probably have “This Land is Your Land” stuck in their heads at this exact moment. But Guthrie was as much a political icon as he was a catchy folk singer. His “Union Maid” was the anthem of countless labor struggles, and he wrote a regular column for a communist newspaper. “This Land is Your Land” itself was penned in response to the complacent patriotism of “God Bless America.”

Political movements, of course, have always had soundtracks. Before Guthrie was singing the working man’s songs, the Wobblies were writing their own. Slaves sung — or whispered — about freedom as they traveled the Underground Railroad, and civil rights activists bellowed “We Shall Overcome” on marches and in jail. And for several years, the folk music scene was synonymous with the anti-Vietnam War movement.

While there is no one quite like Bob Dylan on the radio right now, or hoards of activists (that we know of) crooning from jail cells, plenty of local musicians are keeping up the tradition of writing and performing protest songs. If you ask any of them whether they’re primarily musicians or primarily activists, they’ll answer that the two identities are inseparable — and that 100 years after Woodrow Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, the intersection of art and politics is still a completely natural one.

For Bonnie Lockhart, a member of the East Bay group Occupella, music inspired her to become a lifelong activist, and politics later supported her career as a musician. Growing up in conservative Orange County, she listened to civil rights songs on the radio. “I remember being so moved by the music. I had no context in which to understand what was going on in the South but because that music moved me, I pursued it and found out,” she explained. “It drew me into understanding that something was terribly wrong in our country and that people were doing something incredibly exciting about it.” Later, her involvement in the Women’s Movement gave her courage to pursue a musical career.

Activists have long recognized the power of song to raise morale and create cohesion. “Music is a powerful force for unity,” said Arthur Holden of the Musicians Action Group (MAG).

The amorphous MAG emerged from the more organized Bay Area Progressive Musicians Association, and now consists of a small group of veteran activists and anyone else wants to join them at demonstrations. Initially, music was a crucial political tool. “The police were not happy having picket lines blocking things and nobody knew what to do with a bunch of people with instruments,” said MAG clarinetist Gene Turitz. “When we saw the police coming we would get between the strikers and the police. It would at least stymy them.”

Now, one of the group’s primary goals is to preserve the sounds of historical struggles. MAG is one of the rare groups that continues to perform the Communist anthem “The Internationale.”

“Whenever we do it at a demonstration, someone comes over to us with tears running down their cheeks [in recognition],” Turitz said. The classic pieces have equal importance for those hearing them for the first time, Turitz said, recalling playing “Bread and Roses,” a tune about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory strike, at a march on Cesar Chavez Day. “A guy in a Latino union group comes over and says, ‘That’s the most beautiful song, what’s it about?’ When I tell him, he gets thrilled. It’s that kind of thing we’re trying to preserve.”

Today, the concept of political musicians achieving commercial success might sound oxymoronic, and groups like Peter, Paul and Mary might seem a thing of the progressive past. “When I was coming up in the ’70s, you could record for real companies,” said Lockhart. “It was still capitalism but it wasn’t this voracious. The record labels weren’t into being monopolies, they were into having a niche.”

Others pointed to a more fragmented, diffused political scene to explain the lack of politics on the radio. But many believe that music is just as integral in contemporary struggles as it was in the past, even if the audience it reaches is smaller and the format is more innovative.

“I think our younger generation is just as engaged in art for social change,” said Talia Cooper, a 26-year-old Oaklander who performs original political songs at rallies. Some current Bay Area groups, such as the Brass Liberation Orchestra, consist mostly of younger musicians.

Cooper, who records under the name Entirely Talia, remembered going to long Occupy lectures at the beginning of the movement and watching the crowd become re-energized when she lead them in song.

“People go to demonstrations and passively listen to speakers. There’s just so much listening people can do,” said Occupella’s Hali Hammer. “When they’re singing, they’re directly involved.”

“I used to think it was cheesy for people to say that revolutions need art,” Cooper said. “But if you think about what gets people to show up, it’s the beautiful posters, or the flashmob with the dancers, or the singing.”

Occupella meets Mondays from 5-6pm at the weekly “Tax the Rich” demo on Solano Avenue at Fresno Avenue, Berkeley.

Is the Obamacare ruling good news?


Chief Justice John Robert’s atypical alignment with the left of the bench today led the Supreme Court to uphold most of the Affordable Care Act—a move generally lauded by liberals. But we spoke with a number of progressives who see Obamacare’s victory as solely a victory for the corrupt health insurance industry, and just another step off the path to a successful single-payer solution.

“This bill was written by and for the health insurance industry,” Clark Newhall,a physician and lawyer who is executive director of Utah’s Health Justice, told us. “It’s always been a bailout. It creates a huge new market of people who are forced to buy a shoddy product from a smarmy industry.”

Newhall said insurance industry execs constantly get $200,000 bonuses while health insurance premiums increase two or threefold. The industry found “accomplices in Obama and the Democratic Congress to do its bidding. It creates a government subsidy for these people so in essence this is simply a transfer of government money to the private insurance industry, similar to the bank bailout,” he said.

Many left-of-center Democrats, in fact, called on the Court to strike down the individual mandate that requires all Americans to either have health insurance or pay a penalty—the penalty the Court determined to be a tax, and thus Constitutional.

“Obama said this is the only way to cover everyone,” Russell Mokhiber, the founder of Single Payer Action who joined with 50 doctors to file an amicus brief with the Court rejecting the individual mandate’s constitutionality based on the Commerce Clause. “There are Constitutional ways to cover everyone. Single-payer already exists in Medicare for those over 65 and Medicaid for poor people. There’s a simple fix, which most of the western industrialized world has. The only way to control costs and cover everyone is single-payer,” he said.

According to Mokhiber, millions of people will still be left lacking insurance. He pointed to his electrician, a 63-year-old postponing a major operation until he can get Medicare in two years. “One hundred and twenty Americans die every day from lack of insurance,” he said.

Twenty-six million people in the country are currently uninsured, and the number is expected to grow even with the upholding of individual mandate, physician and congressional fellow Margaret Flowers told us. Although the ACA includes federal subsidies for some low-income people, many don’t make the cut. For example, employers with more than 49 employees are required to provide affordable care — but only for individuals and not their family members. In turn, the family members are no longer eligible for government subsidies, because a member of their household receives insurance from his or her place of work.

The SCOTUS’s rejection of the portion of Obamacare that took federal funds away from states that refused to expand Medicaid further places a burden on low-income Americans. “Upholding the requirement that individuals buy private insurance while allowing states to opt out of Medicaid expansion is the worst possible outcome,” author Gwendolyn Mink told the Institute for Pubic Accuracy today. “Achieving universal coverage by compelling low income Americans to purchase private insurance may beef up health industry profits but at the expense of people most in need of health care for all.”

Over at the Daily Kos, blogger Armando says the nature of the Roberts opinion could have more long-term detrimental effects on federal power in the future. In fact, he said, it’s “a shot across the bow to the Supreme Court’s New Deal jurisprudence that underpins our modern national government.” Rather than simply explain why the individual mandate qualifies as a tax, Roberts additionally took care to describe why it does not fall under the Necessary and Proper Clause or the Commerce Clause.

“Such a conception of the Necessary and Proper Clause would work a substantial expansion of federal authority,” warned Roberts, causing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to question why he should “strive so mightily to hem in Congress’ capacity to meet the new problems arising constantly in our ever developing modern economy.”

The Feds are watching — badly


So, you’re a law enforcement officer in training for participation on a local Joint Terrorism Task Force. Or a student at the United States Military Academy at West Point, involved in the counterterrorism training program developed in partnership with the FBI. Or you’re an FBI agent training up to deal with terrorist threats.

Get ready for FBI training in dealing with Arab and Muslim populations.

Take note that “Western cultural values” include “rational, straight line thinking” and a tendency to “identify problems and solve them through logical decision-making process” — while “Arab cultural values” are “emotional based” and “facts are colored by emotion and subjectivity.”

Be advised that Arabs have “no concept of privacy” and “no concept of ‘constructive criticism'” and that in Arab culture it is “acceptable to interrupt conversations to convey information or make requests.”

“Westerners think, act, then feel,” an FBI powerpoint briefing notes, while “Arabs feel, act, then think.”

Those are some of the most dramatic examples of racial profiling and outright racist stereotyping revealed in thousands of pages of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Bay Guardian, the ACLU of Northern California and the Asian Law Caucus.

The documents show a pattern of cultural insensitivity, sometimes bordering on the ridiculous, not only tolerated by promoted as official instructions by the FBI. The records also show a broad pattern of surveillance of people who have engaged in no criminal activity and aren’t even suspected of crimes, but have been targeted because of their race or religion.

Pieces of this story have come out over the past year as the ACLU has charged the FBI with racial profiling and Attorney General Eric Holder has insisted it’s not happening. And some of the documents — which are not always properly dated — may be a few years old.

But none of it is ancient history: All of the material has been used by the FBI in the past few years, under the Obama administration.

This is the first complete report with the full details on a pattern of behavior that is, at the very least, disturbing — and in some parts, reminiscent of the notorious (and widely discredited) COINTELPRO program that sought to undermine and disrupt political groups in the 1960s.

The information suggests that the federal government is using methods that are not only imprecise and xenophobic but utterly ineffective in protecting the American public.

“This is the worst way to pursue security,” Hatem Bazian, professor of Near East Studies at UC Berkeley, told us.


Dozens of documents attempt to describe “Arabs and Muslims” but other groups aren’t left out of the sweeping stereotyping and blatant racism and xenophobia that the FBI has used in its training guides. One training presentation is titled “The Chinese.” The materials give such tips as “informality is perceived as disrespectful.” The presentation warns “expect your gift (money) to be refused” but advises to give “a simple gift with significant meaning- tangerines or oranges (with stems/leaves.)” But “never give a clock as a gift! (death!)”

And if those in the training on “The Chinese” find themselves in “interactions with the opposite sex,” then “touching, too many compliments, may imply a romantic liaison is desired — be careful!”

The vast majority of the “cultural awareness” training materials imply that the authors believe that the law enforcement personnel receiving the training will never be female or interact with female members of the groups they describe. Some warn repeatedly to never ask Arabs how “females in their family” are doing in polite conversation.

A presentation on “Arab and Muslim culture” compares the western thought process with that of all Arabs. According to the FBI, westerners are “rational” thinkers; Arabs, on the other hand, are “emotion based.” A slideshow on cross-cultural interrogation techniques says, “It is characteristic of the Arabic mind to be swayed more by words than ideas and more by ideas than facts.”

Bazian said the FBI’s generalizations about the Arab intellect are “ideological constructs reflective of the orientalist discourse.”

“Many of these individuals have not done any primary sociological, psychological, or historical work in the Arab/Muslim world,” said Bazian, who works on UC Berkeley’s Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project. “What they basically do is take a text from a particular historical period and pick these points and put it as reflective of contemporary Muslim society. Most of these statements have no basis in any critical analysis. They’re not rooted in any type of research.”

Included in the FBI’s recommended reading list for counterterrorism agents-in-training is the “Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam,” in which “Islam expert Robert Spencer reveals Islam’s ongoing, unshakeable quest for global conquest and why the West today faces the same threat as the Crusaders did.”

It’s not exactly an academically sound piece of work, Bazian told us. Spencer and his cohorts are “political hacks,” the professor said. “They come from neo-con backgrounds. Even saying ‘extreme right wing’ is giving them credit; they’re way down below the cliff. They create this contrast between western society and the rest of the world based on a nostalgic idea of western society.”

Arab culture is often the target these days, but the rhetoric recalls that used during the Chinese Exclusionary Act era, and toward Latinos in the United States today, Bazian said.

“They pick on the weakest, most vulnerable people in western society at a particular time and lay blame on them,” he said.

The FBI’s xenophobic approach to interrogation training—which involves warning new agents that “If an Arab is scared, he will often lie to try to avoid trouble”—is not even productive, Bazian said.

“If you go to people with professional training in interrogation and investigation, they’ll say none of this gives them access to security. If anything, it creates a greater global misunderstanding.”


And the creation of misunderstanding doesn’t stop there. The FBI is also involved in an intelligence-gathering method known as racial mapping. Racial mapping involves local FBI offices tracking groups in their “domains” based on race and ethnicity.

In blog post, the ACLU writes, “Empirical data show that terrorists and criminals do not fit neat racial, ethnic, nation-origin or religious stereotypes, and using such flawed profiles is a recipe for failure.” In the Counterterrorism Textbook read by all trainees the FBI seems to agree, warning multiple times that there is no such thing as a typical terrorist and that making assumptions based on stereotypes is dangerous and unproductive.

Yet the FBI files we’ve acquired reveal that the bureau consistently does just that. Though the Department of Justice prohibited race from being “used to any degree” in law enforcement investigations in 2003, a convenient and potentially unconstitutional exception allows racial profiling in national security matters.

When the FBI created its Domestic Investigation and Operations Guide in 2008, it used that loophole to permit the mapping of racial and ethnic demographic information and to keep tabs on “behavioral characteristics reasonably associated with a particular criminal or terrorist element of an ethnic community,” the ACLU reported.

Communities in San Francisco have been the victims of this prejudicial loophole more than once. In 2009, the ACLU reported that the FBI justified mapping and investigating the Chinese American population in the city because “within this community there has been organized crime for generations.” Likewise, the bureau collected demographic data on the Russian population because of the “Russian criminal enterprises” known to exist in San Francisco.

The loophole, however, may not even apply to these investigations in the first place.

According to Michael German, a 16-year veteran of the FBI and senior analyst with the ACLU, these investigations don’t fit the national security description. “In intelligence notes on Chinese and Russian organized crime, those are not national security issues,” German told us. “Those are all clearly criminal investigations.”

German has brought attention to another troubling use of racial mapping — documents revealing that the FBI’s Atlanta bureau tracks Georgia’s African American population.

The stated reason is a threat of black separatist groups; the documents name the New Black Panther Party and the Black Hebrew Israelites as the black separatist groups that pose a threat.

German wrote about this problematic practice in a May 29 article on the website Firedoglake.

“The problem with these documents,” German told us, “is that it’s not black separatists or alleged black separatists who are being tracked — it’s the entire black community in Georgia.”

“Those individuals and those communities are being targeted only for their race,” German said. “Were it not for their race they wouldn’t be part of that assessment. There is no reason to do that, accept to treat that community differently than the way it treats other communities. It’s problematic from a constitutional standpoint.”

The New Black Panther Party was founded in Dallas and has mostly East Coast chapters. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate United States hate groups, “The group portrays itself as a militant, modern-day expression of the black power movement (it frequently engages in armed protests of alleged police brutality and the like), but principals of the original Black Panther Party of the 1960s and 1970s— a militant, but non-racist, left-wing organization — have rejected the new Panthers as a ‘black racist hate group’ and contested their hijacking of the Panther name and symbol.” The Black Hebrew Israelites is another fringe group, an apocalyptic group whose ideology holds that black Americans are God’s chosen people.

Both groups have written and spoken record of racist and violent rhetoric, but record of violent or criminal acts are hard to find.

“I’d say they’re a fairly small part of the radical right, and generally quite small. As far as we know, there is virtually no connection between these groups and criminal activity,” Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the SPLC, told the Guardian.

According to Potok, the center’s list of hate groups in operation in 2011 includes four organizations classified as black separatist, which, between them, have 140 chapters. Those chapters are counted as 140 of the list’s 1,018 groups.

“Most of the rest of the list are white supremacist groups,” Potok notes. “There are some exceptions — anti-gay groups and anti-Muslim groups.” After a quick count, Potok found 688 groups to be “straight-up white supremacist.”

The majority of these hate groups may be white supremacist — but the FBI is not involved in tracking white populations.

Last October, the FBI’s press office responded to the ACLU’s concerns with racial mapping. “These efforts are intended to address specific threats, not particular communities,” the agency’s statement reads.

“These domain management efforts seek to use existing, available government data to locate and better understand the communities that are potential victims of the threats. There must be an understanding of the communities we protect in order to focus our limited human and financial resources in the areas where those resources are most needed.”

With that defense, resources continue to pour into racial mapping efforts.

Black separatist organizations are not the only groups to be targeted for political beliefs. Groups such as “anarchist extremists” and “animal rights/environmental extremists” are also, according to the FBI, groups to watch out for.

A training presentation for the Bay Area’s Joint Terrorism Task Force includes a list of those groups: “animal rights/eco terrorism, anarchists, white separatists, black separatists, militia/sovereign citizens, and ‘lone offender’.”

How do you spot a potential “animal rights extremist”? According to the documents, “ideology and concepts” found among this group includes a “complete vegan lifestyle,” and activities include the promotion of “anti-capitalist literature.” In other words, your roommate is probably a terrorist.


Racial mapping is not the only FBI practice that targets people just for being members of groups “associated with crimes.” The FBI routinely gathers information on Muslims through deceptive “community outreach” programs.

Memoranda we’ve obtained reveal that FBI agents, operating under the guise of community outreach, attended various events hosted by local Muslim organizations in order to gather intelligence between 2007 and 2009.

When agents attended Ramadan Iftar dinners in San Francisco, they wrote down participants’ contact information and documented their conversations and opinions. At an alleged outreach event at CSU Chico, they recorded a conversation with a student about the Saudi Student Association’s activities and even took the student’s picture. That information was sent to the FBI in Washington, DC, the ACLU reported.

Writing down information on individuals’ First Amendment activities—in this case without any evidence that they were notified or asked—violates the federal Privacy Act, the ACLU says. Using access to community events to gather personal information undermines the FBI’s stated effort to form relationships with Muslim leaders and community members.

And covert surveillance can also have an immediate and hazardous impact on the unwitting subjects.

“It’s becoming more of a public discourse that these FBI background checks are affecting immigration status, the ability to send money back home, and generally creating an environment of fear,” said Miriam Zouvounis, membership coordinator with San Francisco’s Arab Resource and Organizing Center.

The organization has helped clients who have been detained for months because their names were mistakenly placed on a no-fly list, and others whose immigration processes have taken up to ten years because they were erroneously perceived as threatening, Zouvounis said.

“The process of information collecting on covert and overt levels is accelerating, and definitely a present reality in San Francisco. People don’t want to be civically engaged if that material’s being used against them,” she said.


“Extremism online is the most serious international terrorist threat in the world.” Or so says FBI training materials in a presentation entitled “Extremism online,” meant for those training to be online covert employees. The documents teach OCEs to scan through comment threads and enter chat rooms, searching for people whose speech may be “operational.”

This surveillance has led to investigations.

Some of the documents are individual files and summaries of individual files, and many note that the person (often someone who was convicted, so the name isn’t redacted in the documents) was “detected via the Internet.” Some examples: “Mohamad Osman Mohamud, detected via the Internet, discussing Jihad plans” and “Hosam Smadi, detected via the Internet: online chats.” Both men were 19 when they were convicted of crimes.

These men — and the many more who have not been accused of any criminal activity but are likely under surveillance or investigation by OCEs — could have been “detected via the Internet” in a variety of ways, according to German.

“It could be that the chats were open source, or that an informant was in the chat room, or a person participating simply turned them over to the FBI, none of which would require any legal process,” German explained.

“It could also be monitored under FISA [ the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] or traditional criminal wiretaps, which would require court warrants (secret ones under FISA). Finally, the stored chat logs retained on third party servers could have been obtained with Patriot Act Section 215 orders, or what’s called a “D” order under the Stored Communications Act (if held for over 180 days),” German detailed in an email.

So what kind of speech are OCEs looking out for to peg potential terrorist threats? The Extremism Online presentation has a list of “major themes and language used in online extremist writings,” which includes Islam-related terms such as “Caliphate, Al-Ansar, Al-Rafidah, Mushrik, and Munafiq” as well as the Arabic words “Akhi, Uhkti, Ameen, Du’aa, Shari’ah, and Iman” (brother, sister, amen, prayer, Islamic law, and faith.) Other words the agents are told to look out for: “crusaders, hypocrites, dogs and pigs,” and any discussion of “occupation of Muslim lands.”

The FBI can really get into your business if agents confiscate your possessions. Personal computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices, according to the documents, are routinely checked out at Regional Computer Forensics Labs.

The nearest one to San Francisco is in Menlo Park, where employees brag of having investigated thousands of pieces of data.

Law enforcement routinely confiscates property after arrests, and if local cops are involved with the FBI through the Joint Terrorism Task Forces or other partnerships, they may very well send the belongings of those arrested to be checked out at a local RCFL. But there are other ways the FBI can obtain your electronics.

“Certainly the FBI has the authority to obtain computers and other devices with search warrants, either traditional search warrants where the individual is given notice or expedited warrants where the person isn’t aware,” German told the Guardian, noting that the second type of warrant is the preferred method, for obvious reasons, when the Feds plan to search a confiscated computer.

“The FBI also works with immigrations and customs enforcement, so laptops and other devices seized at the border the FBI can gain access to. There are myriad ways they can get them.”


A 2009 FBI memorandum on investigating suspected terrorists reveals that the Bureau encourages its agents to implement a “disruption strategy” that German wrote is “eerily reminiscent” of the COINTELPRO tactics used to stop political organizers in the1960s. “If the risk to public safety is too great, or if all significant intelligence has been collected, and/or the threat is otherwise resolved, investigators may, with substantive desk coordination and concurrence, implement a disruption strategy,” one memo reads. Investigators can conduct interviews, make arrests, or use any number of other undefined “tools” to “effectively disrupt subject’s [sic] activities.” Such disruption strategies have been used in the past to investigate and shut down First Amendment-protected activity, German said. The reintroduction of such tactics could open the door for a major breach of the subjects’ constitutional rights.


“After September 11th, 2001, the FBI realigned its mission and purpose to reflect the global and domestic threats that face the US,” begins an orientation packet for members of Joint Terrorism Task Forces. “FBI director Robert M. Meuller III defined the following as the top ten priorities (in order of importance) that confront the Bureau today,” Number one on the list: Protect the United States from terrorist attack.

Indeed, after 9/11, the FBI prioritized terrorism investigations, a shift from the previous focus on criminal investigations. Classified as national security threats, these investigations are not subject to the same type of privacy and anti-racial discrimination protections that other criminal investigations might be.

Terrorist threats, apparently, are to be found in mosques, in online conversations that involve criticism of US foreign policy, in entire populations of African Americans or Chinese Americans in given areas. In recent years, simply speaking Arabic online or being black makes a person a suspect and potential target of surveillance.

Look out America, especially members of that celebrated “melting pot.” The feds are watching.