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Should we welcome FBI informants?

Remember that scene in Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9/11, where members of a friendly peace group in California discuss being infiltrated by the police as they pass around a plate of cookies? Well it’s happened again, only this time by the feds. Over at The Progressive, Matt Rothschild has just published a disturbing article on the FBI infiltration of a group of activists in Iowa City last year.

As they were planning to protest the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, an FBI informant instantly gained the trust of the group by posing as a soldier who refused to go to Iraq and obtained conscientious objector status. According to FBI documents that the magazine obtained, the agent gave a great deal of personal information about the activists in his reports.

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.”

Perhaps the worst part of the story, however, is the impact that this revelation is having on the activists that knew him.

“There’s been a lot of effect on group unity and group cohesion,” said David Goodner, of the University of Iowa Anti-War Committee. “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.”

While this reaction is understandable, we simply can’t let the government make us suspicious of each other. Otherwise, it’s a win-win situation for them. If they don’t get caught, they get the information they’re looking for. And if they are exposed they do serious damage to trust within the group.

Maybe I’m naïve about the potential downsides, but if we are nonviolent and honest, what do we have to hide? Gandhi was no fan of secrecy, and it’s not like our actions are not generally public. So rather than getting worried by such news, maybe we should welcome informants from any government agency to sit in on our meetings. Perhaps they would learn something and come to see that we’re not so crazy after all.