by Aric McBay
Those who bothered incessantly about security survived, but few of them had much beyond survival to their credit. To strike and then to survive was the real test.
—M. R. D. Foot, historian, on World War II resistance movements.
We live in an age of escalating political persecution, and we shouldn’t expect that to go away. The more effective and serious a resistance movement becomes, the harsher the persecution of its members and their allies will be. Things will get worse before they get better, the Green Scare being a key example. Even people participating in outwardly innocuous actions are vulnerable to malicious persecution, as long as that action is effective or perceived as a threat by those in power. Those working aboveground have more to be concerned about than those working underground, because the people working aboveground are more accessible to those in power.
Fortunately, activists working against persecution by government and police have come up with ways to combat this problem through the use of a collective security culture. According to the must-read booklet Security Culture: A Handbook for Activists, security culture is “a culture where people know their rights and, more importantly, assert them. Those who belong to a security culture also know what behavior compromises security and they are quick to educate those people who, out of ignorance, forgetfulness, or personal weakness, partake in insecure behavior. This security consciousness becomes a culture when the group as a whole makes security violations socially unacceptable in the group.”1
The handbook identifies six main topics that are inappropriate to discuss.2 These are:
The key issue here comes from talking about specifics. Talking about particular people, groups, places, times, targets, events, and other specifics is a bad idea, even if it is a joke, gossip, or speculation. This is different from speaking about resistance or illegal activities in abstract or general terms. As the handbook states, “It is perfectly legal, secure, and desirable that people speak out in support of monkeywrenching and all forms of resistance.”3
The authors write that there are three and only three specific exceptions to these general rules. The first is if you are planning an action with trusted members of your affinity group in a secure fashion. Even within the affinity group, critical discussion and information should be restricted to those actually participating in an action. The phrase to take away here is need to know. In good security culture, only people who need to know critical information have access to it.
The second exception is after a member of the resistance has been arrested, tried, and convicted. In this case, a person may speak about an action for which they’ve been convicted if the person chooses to. However, the individual must be careful to avoid giving away information that would implicate other people or cause a hazard to people still working underground. Since the Security Culture handbook was written, Rod Coronado was arrested and imprisoned for publically discussing details of a previous action he’d already served time for.4 Take note: if those in power want to persecute you, they may still attack you for discussing previous actions. For this reason, the second exception is not universal.
The third exception noted in Security Culture is for anonymous letters and communiqués to the media. However, as the authors remark, this has to be done in a very careful way. The transmission of the communiqué itself must be secure and anonymous. Also, the communiqué should be carefully stripped of identifying information, dialect, or other clues.
There may be a fourth exception not discussed in Security Culture. Many of the most effective resistance movements and insurgencies, as discussed in the strategy chapter, work on an “open source” model in which effective attacks and tactics are quickly copied by many groups. In order to avoid reinventing the wheel, instructions and information on the specifics of these tactics must be disseminated to various cells. This may involve sharing information about the specifics of targets and other information that normally shouldn’t be discussed. When this sharing is done, care should be taken to conceal identities and other operational details that are secret or not directly related to the topic, and the instructions should be circulated through secure means. The US military has an extensive collection of field manuals for training purposes; an analogous collection of underground resistance field manuals would be invaluable.
Security breaches, when they happen, occur for different reasons. Sometimes people gossip or speculate about who performed certain actions, or ask inappropriately. Sometimes people will lie and claim to have performed actions they have not in order to gain credibility. Others will brag, or hint heavily, about their involvement in underground or illegal activities. All of these behaviors are foolish if not downright stupid and dangerous. Some people in the Green Scare were arrested and put in jail because they or their comrades made security violations like these. Sometimes people do these things because they are being impulsive. Sometimes they do these things because they are using intoxicants. In any case, at the very least these security violations create rumors that can be passed on to listening informers, perhaps via gossip. People who do this act, in effect, as unwitting informers.
If you encounter these behaviors, the first response can be to educate. People aren’t born knowing about security culture, and they simply may not have encountered good information or training. Make it clear, in private and tactfully if possible, but firmly, that their actions are violating good security culture. Explain what they did and why security culture is important, and point them toward further resources on the subject. Don’t let violations pass or become habit.
Some people, unfortunately, are unable or unwilling to maintain good security culture, and may become chronic violators. They may not be doing it on purpose; you may like them, and they may be your friends. But they may also be acting as informers, either wittingly or unwittingly. The only effective way to deal with repeat violators is to cut them off from sources of information. This generally means asking them to leave your group, not to attend meetings or organizing spaces. To allow them to remain, as harsh as it may seem, is to invite security breaches. It would be far harsher, in the end, to allow potential informers to stay and put activists at risk of prosecution.
This can be very emotionally difficult, but it is necessary. It’s well known that counterintelligence agents in government and corporations have surveilled, infiltrated, and sabotaged even mainstream antiwar and environmental groups like Greenpeace. Aboveground groups generally do not and should not have critical information that could end up putting people in jail if it got into the wrong hands. But it’s not always clear-cut. Infiltrators who train in “safe” aboveground groups can go on to do more destructive work, including acting as agent provocateurs in your own community. Those infiltrators can also gather information about who sympathizes with militant or radical causes and learn about social networks and relationships. They can decide which revealing offhand comments and suspicious activists should potentially be investigated. Anyone who likes to ask inappropriate questions or gossip about illegal activities will eventually spill information to those in power, either directly or by discussing it electronically where it can be easily surveilled. Conversely, people who brag or lie about illegal or underground activities, or try to plan them with others in public, can draw unnecessary and unwanted attention to any resistance group.
People who cannot follow the simple and basic rules of security culture are either deliberate informers or fundamentally unsuitable for serious resistance. And even though it may be painful or unpleasant, such people need to be separated from groups and places where serious resistance is taking place.
People involved in resistance must know their basic legal rights. There are many free pamphlets suited to many different countries. The booklet “If an Agent Knocks: Federal Investigators and Your Rights” from the Center for Constitutional Rights is a good start for the US. Another recent booklet is the National Lawyers Guild’s “Operation Backfire: A Survival Guide for Environmental and Animal Rights Activists,” available at www.nlg.org.
If you believe you are being followed or watched, or if you are contacted by the police, report this to others in your activist community. After you are contacted, write down the names of the agents who spoke to you, what they said, as many questions as you can remember, and anything else that seems important. This can be passed on to others in your community. In part this kind of transparency helps to maintain trust in a community (and to avoid rumors that someone saw so-and-so talking to the cops). It also helps warn others in the community that they should keep their guard up, refresh people on their rights, and perhaps initiate counterintelligence work.
Resisters who are involved in underground or illegal activities usually want to warn their comrades if they know or hear that police are poking around. The initial warning is sometimes a prearranged but outwardly innocuous code word or phrase which can be quickly relayed over phone, email, or other medium. (Of course, the police may also be tapping telephone or email, and waiting to see who a suspected resister contacts immediately after a probing visit.)
It’s worth studying the investigative and interrogation techniques used by police. These techniques mostly aren’t secrets, but can be found in books and other resources.