Two informants who appear to have been very familiar with Washington, D.C. area anarchists helped FBI agents learn the identity of a photo journalist that attended and documented a small 2008 anti-IMF / World Bank protest that trashed the lobby of an upscale hotel. Now those informants may find themselves exposed if a D.C . judge’s orders are carried out.
Laura Sennett is a freelance photographer whose work has been published by CNN, MSNBC, the Toronto Free Press, and on the History Channel. She had covered anti-capitalist protests before, and was tipped off by phone about the early morning action at the posh Four Seasons Hotel, where the “humanitarian” bankers of the IMF and WB were staying. Protesters had her number, but so did someone who was likely posing as an anarchist, who in reality was serving the FBI. Another informant had identified Sennett in security camera footage as ‘Isis,’ which is a nickname Sennett was known by amongst activists. The FBI was then able to find that the phone number belonged to one Laura Sennett. They connected the name to her Virginia drivers license and found the picture matched the woman caught in the surveillance footage.
After being identified, Sennett was placed under surveillance, and two weeks later her home was raided by about two dozen heavily armed and militarized law officers. Her teenage son was dragged out of bed at gun-point, and the entire family was traumatized. Well aware of her status as a journalist, “agents seized dozens of items, including an external hard drive allegedly containing more than 7,000 photographs, two computers, several cameras, and several camera memory cards” according to court documents. Clothing and personal affects were also taken, but no charges were ever filed against Sennett. It’s possible that the entire operation was designed to put a scare into protesters or those who cover their activities, as well as to seize a great number of high quality photographs of protests in hopes that they may reveal illegal activity.
Mike German is a former FBI agent who twice infiltrated “extremist groups” but left the bureau in 2004. Now employed by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, he told the Guardian that he believes that the two informants in this case were likely private investigators. German also spoke critically of the FBI’s use of their joint terrorism task force to investigate an incident of political vandalism, saying that it’s indicative of a trend of the agency shifting it’s interest to be “more about suppressing dissent than investigating serious or violent crime.”
Sennett fought back and sued the Department of Justice, who had turned her home and life upside down despite the fact that she hadn’t broken any law. She also filed a series of Freedom of Information Act or FOIA requests in 2010 to uncover all the information she could about how she had become a target. The FBI complied with her request and gave her more than 1600 pages of files they had compiled on her. A number of documents were redacted and about 600 withheld, amongst them “a total of three paragraphs, spanning four pages” that included details about the two FBI sources that helped identify Sennett. The FBI was called out on their efforts to protect these individuals; and in a extremely rare and unexpected turn of events Judge James E. Boasberg of the US District Court in Washington, DC ruled Wednesday that the FBI had offered no legal basis for doing so.
The judge’s ruling revealed that the first FBI source in the case, who identified Sennett by a nickname, “had attended a meeting of individuals planning to protest the World Bank/IMF fall meetings” in the past. None of the documents provided to the court indicate that either informant continued to work with the FBI since the 2008 incident, nor that either was ever paid by the government for their service. This is part of why details about their past cooperation may become public. The government has 90 days to appeal this ruling but according to the plaintiff’s lawyer, D.C.-based Jeffrey Light, it is unlikely that they will be able to overturn this decision, giving anti-capitalist protesters a chance of revealing some of the undercover agents in amongst them.