This gets complicated. According to – City Pages (Minneapolis/St. Paul), Moles Wanted, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force is recruiting people to infiltrate anti-GOP protest groups in the run-up to the upcoming Republican convention.
The law is clear that police may attend public meetings undercover to see what people are up to. And of course undercover operations in private settings are also legal, although there should be guidelines as to when they are appropriate. And of course it's good citizenship for private citizens to report crimes when they witness them.
But this story raises a number of serious questions.
First, there's this: the FBI told the potential informant that he “would be compensated for his efforts, but only if his involvement yielded an arrest. No exact dollar figure was offered.”
In other words, the FBI is recruiting unpaid volunteers to become infiltrators. And they get paid only if they give information leading to an arrest. Which creates a serious incentive for agents provocateurs. This is not a sensible policy at all. It is in fact a very bad idea.
Second, there's the weird description of the targets — “vegan potlucks” — and the general sense of massive overkill, which contributes to the chilling effect discussed in the article.
I also wonder whether a similar effort is underway for the Democratic convention (not that two wrongs make a right). If it is not, would that be because of a political bias in the FBI, or a considered judgment that McCain is more likely to be a target of violence than the first Black (or female) major-party Presidential candidate?
Bottom line: we don't want violence, but we also don't a stifling police presence that — whatever its motives — feels like an attempt to stifle dissent.
And we especially don't want to live in an informer nation in which people with no training and who knows what personal agendas are offered a chance to make money by stirring up trouble and then phoning the FBI.
Update: Emptywheel at Firedoglake has some good comments, notably:
How does one equate vegan potlucks with this restriction on permissible terrorist investigations?
Mere speculation that force or violence might occur during the course of an otherwise peaceable demonstration is not sufficient grounds for initiation of an investigation under this Subpart, but where facts or circumstances reasonably indicate that a group or enterprise has engaged or aims to engage in activities involving force or violence or other criminal conduct described in paragraph (1)(a) in a demonstration, an investigation may be initiated in conformity with the standards of that paragraph. [her emphasis]
It's a very good question. Rule of Law anyone?