Whenever I start to think that I’m overly cynical and paranoid about the government, I read something like this and realize that, if anything, my paranoia is completely insufficient for the off the wall schemes our government concocts.  In fact, the only thing that appears to keep government officials from engaging in Parallax View style conspiracies is their laughable incompetence. Nothing has demonstrated that more in recent years than domestic terrorism investigations. Time and again, law enforcement has proven that if given a long enough leash, they would rather pursue the make -believe terrorists they see hiding behind every protest placard than tackle the much more difficult–and real–problem of tracking people with an actual desire to harm others.

We’ve seen this type of thing before, but this farce of an investigation from Seattle really takes the cake. The Seattle Police Department in conjunction with the FBI sent an undercover agent, Bryan Van Brunt, to surveil a local after hours party hot-spot and its participants for the better part of two years. The police believed they could use the party scene to infiltrate the eco-terrorist group Earth Liberation Front, expose corrupt local politicians, and bust high level drug traffickers. Through sheer dumb luck, investigators managed to pop a few Honduran cocaine dealers, but they never get any crooked pols, let alone terrorists. But because they need to pin some scalps to the wall, the SPD arrest a few amateur poker players and the unfortunate Rick Wilson on unrelated gun charges. The article is long and well worth the read, but if you refuse to devote the time to this tragi-comic story, here is a key excerpt:

“The degree of surveillance and monitoring has been extremely expensive,” the officer tells Rick, sounding equal parts intimidating and frustrated. “When you’ve gone to the QFC and Corsair and Tubs. Think over the last two years—everything you’ve done in private and on the streets, people you’ve talked to, what you’ve had in your possession, conversations, intentions, plans… I have to emphasize the level of surveillance we’ve run over the last two years. Tell us about all the drug deals in The Yard. You want me to tell you about the red cabinet where you keep the drugs? The cocaine? We have hundreds of hours of surveillance, wire, video…”

“That would seem to be an absurd waste of state financing and funding,” Rick says. “And that actually scares me more than the charges… You guys aren’t after anything bigger than this? This is it?”

Later, Rick asks them pointedly: “Didn’t it, at some point in this investigation, get frustrating to discover that there’s nothing?”

“We have enough to charge you with multiple crimes that could put you away for 30 to 40 years,” the officer snaps back. Later, FBI agent Simmons says, “I hate to keep beating a dead horse, man, but we’ve been looking at you for a year at least.”

“Well,” Rick replies, “that must have been pretty unsatisfying for you.”

The FBI agent doesn’t answer.

The Seattle police seem to think that Rick’s guns point toward some kind of guilt.

“Why the need to have so many weapons on the premises?” one of the officers asks.

“My home?” Rick asks, sounding flabbergasted. “That’s my home. I own a small amount of firearms legally, most of which are locked in an extremely secure gun safe in an unloaded manner. I’m a man from Oklahoma,” he continues, “and there’s no such thing as a man from Oklahoma who doesn’t own a firearm or two. Even the hippies own guns.”

The agents sit silent, seemingly flummoxed. They’ve pursued this target for years, luring him into a bust that they hoped would scare him into giving up some valuable intelligence about domestic terrorists, or city politicians, or at least some drug dealers. But they’ve fundamentally misunderstood their own investigation.

This story fits into a national pattern of law enforcement going to great lengths to prosecute people who are perceived as serious threats to national security, but who are (for the most part) just people with big mouths and weird lifestyles.

Former Chicago Tribune reporter Will Potter, author of Green Is the New Red (just published by City Lights), says that after years of looking into these kinds of cases, he’s never figured out exactly why the FBI is doing this: “The best explanation I ever heard was from a former FBI agent. She said: ‘In the 1980s, it was drugs; in the ’90s, it was gangs; and post-9/11, the institutional focus of law enforcement is terrorism.’”

Potter says, “This case you’re looking into sounds like one of the extremes among the extremes.” The Bryan/Rick investigation isn’t an anomaly—not just a couple of crazy cops on a tear—and Seattle isn’t the only community where the FBI and local law enforcement have teamed up to investigate people for what DK Pan’s attorney David Whedbee calls “their beliefs and expressive conduct.”

“This has happened quite a bit,” Potter says. “I don’t mean to be too glib, but if it can’t find people committing so-called ecoterrorism, the FBI seems willing to create ecoterrorism and then arrest people for it. It sucks to put it in those terms because it sounds so conspiracy theorist, and I don’t want it to sound that way. It’s not the norm but it’s increasing that the FBI is clamoring for these arrests and is willing to break the law in the process.”

Not only did this extremely expensive investigation fail to find anything remotely close to what the police were looking for, it appears that Bryan Van Brunt was actually encouraging criminal activity to justify his job:

A Cafe Corsair regular remembers Bryan asking him one night if a certain security guy was armed. “I said yes. He said, ‘Good, we should encourage that,’” the regular remembers. “Now you have this cop who built this place, condoning and encouraging sales of drugs to an uncontrolled demographic of people and that they be policed with guns.”

The whole investigation was clearly a fishing expedition designed to ensnare people whose politics run counter to those of the Seattle Police Department. The surveillance expanded to such a scope that the author of the article discovers that investigators kept information on him because of his coverage of the 2008 Republican National Convention. Such political persecution should never happen in a free society, but we have unfortunately allowed the government to control so many facets of our lives that law enforcement can find legal justification for even the most far-fetched witch hunts.

Link via Jesse Walker at Hit and Run.