Towards a Collective Security Culture


For as long as anyone can remember, the FBI has infiltrated radical communities in hopes of framing people on criminal charges. This has intensified in anarchist circles over the past few years. A handful of unfortunates now languish in prison, serving up to decades for actions they never carried out and probably would never have even considered were it not for the efforts of agents provocateurs. How does the government choose who to target? What factors put people at risk? Most importantly, what can we do to protect ourselves and each other?

This is required reading for anyone going to the impending Earth First! Rendezvous in Oregon, the CrimethInc. convergence in Pittsburgh July 20-26, or, for that matter, any other radical gathering or protest. We’ve also added a guide to security culture to our online library, which we hope everyone will read as well.

Cold-Blooded Bounty Hunters

Perhaps, gentle reader, you’ve never been part of a community targeted by the US government. Picture undercover agents attending your events with the intention of setting people up to be framed for illegal activity. Most of your friends and family would have the sense to keep themselves out of trouble, of course—but can you be absolutely sure everyone would?

What if someone fell in love with the agent and was desperate to impress him or her, and the agent took advantage of this? Every community has people in it who may sometimes be gullible or vulnerable, who may not display the best judgment at all times. And what if the agent provocateur is a person everyone trusts and looks up to? Government agents aren’t always outsiders—often, the FBI recruits or blackmails long-time participants, such as Brandon Darby and Frank Ambrose. Don’t underestimate these people; they’re cold-blooded bounty hunters ready to do whatever it takes to earn their paychecks, guided by experts with millions and millions of dollars of funding.

Perhaps you’re still saying to yourself “It would never happen—all of us are law-abiding citizens.” Sure you are, every last one of you. The US has 2.3 million people in prison, and over 5 million more on probation and parole—if there isn’t a single person in your whole community who has ever broken the law, you’re exceptional, and probably exceptionally privileged. Anyway, it doesn’t matter—your unfortunate friend or neighbor doesn’t even have to do anything illegal to get framed by the government. They just have to end up in a situation in which it’s possible to make it appear that they could have been considering doing something illegal.

Often the evidence is so tenuous that it takes the government multiple attempts to obtain a conviction. In an entrapment case resulting from the mobilization against the 2008 Republican National Convention, defendant David McKay received a hung jury at trial, only to be coerced into pleading guilty afterwards behind closed doors. In another recent entrapment case, it took two hung juries before a third jury finally convicted some of the defendants—prompting a law professor quoted by the New York Times to say, “It goes to show that if you try it enough times, you’ll eventually find a jury that will convict on very little evidence.”

Muslims and people who care about the environment are at the top of the list for operations like this; opponents of unaccountable authority are close behind. And here we arrive at the one significant difference between “law-abiding” white middle America and at least some of the communities currently targeted by the FBI: the latter are critical of the government. Who can blame them, considering?

How This Affects Us

There have been two instances in which people who attended a CrimethInc. convergence have been entrapped. Eric McDavid, Zachary Jenson, and Lauren Weiner met each other and an informant by the name of “Anna” at the 2004 and 2005 convergences, among other events. Anna drove them across the country, rented them a wiretapped cabin, bought bomb-making materials, and took advantage of McDavid’s attraction to her to pressure the group into discussions that resulted in McDavid’s conviction on conspiracy charges. Afterwards, Elle Magazine quoted regretful jurors as saying “the FBI was an embarrassment” and “I hope he gets a new trial.” In 2008, Matthew DePalma attended a CrimethInc. convergence in Wisconsin, at which he was approached by Andrew Darst, a federal infiltrator posing as a member of the RNC Welcoming Committee. Darst persuaded DePalma to assist him in manufacturing explosives, recorded conversations with him in a wired apartment, and drove him around to do research and purchase supplies. DePalma was indicted on felony charges [PDF, 3.4 MB] for possession of “unregistered firearms,” and eventually pleaded guilty.

Besides these two cases, not one of the hundreds upon hundreds of people who have attended CrimethInc. convergences has been convicted of anything having to do with bombs or Molotov cocktails. These infiltrators sure are precise! Apparently, they can show up in a chaotic space filled with hundreds of people who don’t know each other, immediately identify the most dangerous extremists, and insinuate themselves into their closest confidence—all in a very short time. Next thing you know, the snitches are saving the day, narrowly rescuing ordinary citizens from terrorist attacks—which the criminals would have been about to carry out anyway, even if the agents provocateurs hadn’t befriended them, talked them into crazy schemes, and supplied them with all sorts of incriminating materials.

If you’re gullible enough to believe that version of the story, you’re a perfect target for government entrapment yourself. It seems much more likely that these agents provocateurs pick on the most vulnerable people they can find: the lonely, the naïve, the impressionable, the mentally or emotionally unstable, people who lack close friendships or life experience. This is easier than messing with shrewd, well-connected organizers. The point is not so much to catch the people organizing resistance to the government—charges of Conspiracy to Riot in Furtherance of Jaywalking are just not that impressive—so much as to discredit resistance movements by framing somebody, anybody, as a Dangerous Terrorist. If that means destroying the life of a person who never would have actually harmed anyone, who cares—honest, compassionate people don’t become snitches in the first place.

None of this is intended to blame or insult those who are entrapped. We all have moments of weakness. The guilt lies on those who take advantage of others’ weakness for their own gain.

How We Defend Ourselves

Why go on meeting publicly, if the government sees this as an opportunity to entrap us? Wouldn’t it be safer to shift to informal networks or small underground cells?

The government would like nothing better than for us to retreat to private scenes and cliques, so there are fewer opportunities for unconnected individuals to get involved. It is to our oppressors’ advantage for small numbers of radicals to escalate to more militant tactics while losing connection to a social base; this makes direct action less likely to spread, while rendering it easier to justify repression. It might be harder for the government to track down clandestine groups at first, but you can bet they’ll set their minds to doing so with a vengeance; Operation Backfire is proof that closed, high-security structures are also not impenetrable.

The most important thing for us to be doing is not secretively carrying out military strikes against the State, but generalizing whatever ideas, skills, and momentum we can. To that end, we desperately need public, participatory activities offering points of entry for new people and opportunities for existing groups to connect.

Right now, there’s no reason to believe that everyone with “RADICAL” stamped on their FBI file is about to be rounded up and sent to camps. It seems that the current government policy is to collect as much intelligence as possible on radicals, target high-visibility organizers with conspiracy charges when there is a good chance of convicting them, and entrap whichever random victims are easiest to frame. That means rank-and-file participation in radical movements and communities is still relatively low-risk, so long as you use your head.

Let’s review what that entails:

Never undertake or discuss illegal activity with people you haven’t known and trusted for a long time. Don’t trust people just because other people trust them or because they are in influential positions. Don’t let others talk you into tactics you’re not comfortable with or ready for. Be aware that anything you say may come back to haunt you, even if you don’t mean it. Always listen to your instincts; if someone seems pushy or too eager to help you with something, take some time to think about the situation. Reflect on the motivations of those around you—do they make sense? Get to know your comrades’ families and friends.

It’s also useful to study the behavior of informants. An interesting analysis of the communications of the agent provocateur in the Eric McDavid case is available here.

All this is fairly common sense among seasoned radicals, but perhaps we can go a step further. Thus far, activists and anarchists have thought of security largely in personal terms—as a way for individuals to avoid incriminating themselves and their friends. The forms of “security culture” common in our communities have reflected this individualism. Yet even if 99 out of 100 anarchists are able to avoid getting framed, when agents provocateurs manage to entrap the 100th one we still end up all paying the price—losing friends, spending years working on prisoner support, and ceding the government yet another opportunity to demonize us in the media.

We need to evolve a new security culture that can protect others as well, including vulnerable and marginal participants in radical spaces who may be particularly appetizing targets to federal bounty hunters. In addition to looking out for yourself, keep an eye on others who may put themselves at risk.

For example, imagine that you attend a presentation about a direct action mobilization, and one person in the audience keeps asking crazy questions and demanding that people escalate their tactics. It’s possible that this person is a cop; it’s also possible that he’s not a cop, but a hothead that might make a very attractive target for cops. Such individuals are typically shunned, which only makes them more vulnerable to agents provocateurs: “Screw these squares—stick with me and we’ll really make something happen!” Someone who has nothing to lose should approach this person in a low-stress environment and emphasize the importance of proper security culture, describing the risks that one exposes himself and others to by speaking so carelessly and urging him to be cautious about trusting anyone who solicits his participation in illegal activity. A ten-minute conversation like this might save years of heartache and prisoner support later on.

A great deal of thinking remains to be done on this subject. How do we look out for each other without prying into each other’s business or stepping on each other’s toes? Are there other ways we can protect against the machinations of infiltrators and informants? We don’t know the answers to these questions yet; we’re asking you to think them through with us. The sooner we can develop a collective security culture that prevents federal agents from framing naïve young people, the sooner we’ll be able to build a durable, visible struggle against oppression.

Further Reading

What is Security Culture

The Electronic Frontier Foundation on Surveillance Self-Defense

General Security Culture Guide: online version and zine version [PDF]

Resisting Grand Juries

Additional Links

Security Culture Puppet Show

8 thoughts on “Towards a Collective Security Culture

  1. A few weeks ago when the NPR program This American Life came out with its program regarding Brandon Darby (and his entrapment of David McKay and Bradley Crowder) I started thinking about this issue a lot. Here’s a couple of thoughts that came to mind:

    1) If everyone already knew darby was a borderline authoritarian
    misogynist asshole (I met the man one time, and this was the first thing I was told about him) why was he still allowed to participate in our circles? Are there problems with our culture (not just security culture) that allow Brandon Darbies to exist. Obviously, some would say that he should have been excluded from the social scene entirely for his past behaviour. This may be true, but what I’m mostly interested in, is what would have caused folks to continue including him. The radio program talked about darby having a “get shit done” attitude. I have sympathies toward this, and I know others do to. Honestly, the bureaucracy can be so much sometimes one just wants to step out of the community to do what needs to be done. I’m reminded of working on a community center project in a city I used to live in. There were so many meetings happening in which no one was being held accountable to the decisions made that finally a few friends and I decided to stop attending. Instead, whenever there was a meeting we went and worked in the garden. At the time I thought that this was an appropriate course of action, and it certainly produced more results. In retrospect though, it really represented the failure of our consensus process. We need to have social systems and decision making processes that allow us to make reasonable decisions in a timely manner and actually act upon them. It should be seen as a failure if the only folks able to get stuff done are those that abrogate the system and make unilateral (or authoritarian) decisions. Of course this is not to say that we shouldn’t all retain the ability to act on our own accord, but a group *should* be able to do much more than any individual. And most importantly it should be able to make much *better* decisions. Isn’t that supposed to be the point?

    2) What attracted these young men to get in with Brandon in the first
    place? In the radio program they stated that Brandon had these activist
    credentials which gave them credibility. In some ways it made me think
    that maybe the rest of the community wasn’t as inviting to them. I don’t
    know for sure that this was true in the case of Crowder and McKay, but sometimes what passes as security culture borders on elitism. If the broader community excludes new comers (for example because they say stupid dangerous things) then it seems that they could be pushed to sketchier situations; like entering into an abusive authoritarian relationship with an FBI informant.

  2. Great points impact. I think you’re especially right about communities’ elitist and often exclusionary practices and how that does more to affect security culture than most people give credit to. I’ve been to all of the convergences and similar events that have been ‘open invitation’ and I’ve never felt that this issue was given enough attention.

    It’s true that new comers sometimes are more vulnerable to saying something inappropriate, but it works the other way too. It’s also sometimes common for people who are new to these ideas and activities to speculate about others’ intentions and motivations–not to mention the outright arrogant and aggressive attitudes that are definitely prevalent in our communities and often times accepted as of form of weird, radical self-righteousness.

    Personally I feel that to build any sort of collective security culture, we must first address how we treat others who are new and inexperienced–making them feel comfortable and giving them appropriate, safe outlets to learn and grow.

  3. Enjoyed the article, and the comments. This is probably the most logical approach to security culture I have heard. And I’m all about finding ways to be safe without being exclusive.

  4. Lisa Fithian has just published a thoroughly informative recollection of her experiences with informant Brandon Darby, indicating the lessons we can learn:

    It’s worth reading! Here is an especially valuable list from her article:

    “Behaviors of Brandon’s or others that enabled this kind of damage to be done”

    -Deferring or listening to men, as opposed to women and/or attacking women in leadership positions. Our patriarchal society has taught us this and we need to deconstruct it.

    -Charisma and confidence enabled him to assume leadership and control — people deferred even though he had little experience. He cultivated a handful of women and men to become personal assistants who did a lot of his work for him.

    -Assuming credibility by his associations — Brandon tried to associate himself with other high profile organizers in the activist community.

    -Preying on and exploiting people’s vulnerabilities and insecurities, particularly using alcohol or other addictions. He liked to “play with people’s minds.”

    -Bullying. All bullies abuse their power and people let them do what they want because they are afraid of what will happen if they do not go along. They use their physical prowess to intimidate both women and men.

    -Disrupting group process in meetings, derailing agendas, questioning process, challenging others, or not coming to meetings at all to avoid accountability. Or using secrecy and sub-groups to divide the whole.

    -Pointing fingers at and ‘snitch-jacketing’ other people, accusing them of being cops, FBI agents, etc. This kept everyone on guard, and created an environment of suspicion and distrust.

    -Seducing people using power or sex, leaving a lot of pain and destabilized situations in his wake or provoking people to do acts they would not do on their own.

    -Being persistent and pursuing people, by calling them repeatedly or showing up at their homes, inviting them for coffee, he would wear you down, or find other ways back into important relationships.

    -Being an emotional/physical wreck, becoming very needy and seducing people into taking care of him. Then people would defend him because of his emotional vulnerabilities or physical needs.

    -Time and energy suck. Talk endlessly, consuming hours of time and energy — confusing, exhausting, and indoctrinating.

    -Being helpful or useful — showing up when you most needed support. Brandon would arrive with tools, money, or whatever was needed at just the right time.

    -Documenting through videotaping or photographing actions but never using it or working on communications systems which he attempted at the RNC.

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