In the midst of last weekend's demonstrations in Quebec against the FTAA, the Independent Media Center in Seattle was being targeted by the FBI and the Secret Service. As 2600 is the host of New York City's IMC office, we're greatly concerned at such tactics for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that this has happened so many times before to so many other groups and organizations. This is why we feel compelled to support the IMC as they attempt to take back the media and report on news that is being ignored in the mainstream.
What follows is a press release that has been issued by the Seattle IMC which clears up some misconceptions and explains the situation pretty well:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
SEATTLE INDEPENDENT MEDIA CENTER
27 APRIL 2001
CONTACT: Seattle Independent Media Center 206.262.0721
On the evening of Saturday, April 21, a day during which tens of thousands demonstrated against the FTAA in the streets of Quebec City, the Independent Media Center in Seattle was served with a sealed court order by two FBI agents and an agent of the US Secret Service. The terms of the sealed order prevented IMC volunteers from publicizing its terms; volunteers immediately began discussions with legal counsel to amend the order. This morning, April 27, Magistrate Judge Monica Benton issued an amended order, freeing us to discuss the situation without the threat of being held in contempt.
The original order, also issued by Judge Benton, directed the IMC to supply the FBI with "all user connection logs" for April 20 and 21st from a web server occupying an IP address which the Secret Service believed belonged to the IMC. The order stated that this was part of an "ongoing criminal investigation" into acts that could constitute violations of Canadian law, specifically theft and mischief. IMC legal counsel David Sobel, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, comments: "As the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, the First Amendment protects the right to communicate anonymously with the press and for political purposes. An order compelling the disclosure of information identifying an indiscriminately large number of users of a website devoted to political discourse raises very serious constitutional issues.” To provide the same protection to the press and anonymous sources in the Internet world as with more traditional media, the Government must be severely limited in its ability to demand their Internet identity--their "Internet Protocol addresses." A federal statute already requires that such efforts against the press be approved by the Attorney General, and only where essential and after alternatives have been exhausted. There is no suggestion that these standards were met here.
The sealed court order also directed the IMC not to disclose "the existence of this Application or Order, or the existence of this investigation, unless or until ordered by this court." Such a prior restraint on a media organization goes to the heart of the First Amendment. Ironically, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer learned about the existence of the order from "federal sources," suggesting that the purpose of the gag order was simply to allow the government to spin the issue its way.
The order did not specify what acts were being investigated, and the Secret Service agent acknowledged that the IMC itself was not suspected of criminal activity. No violation of US law was alleged. It is not clear whether federal law allows the Attorney General ever to approve such an investigation of US press entities to facilitate a foreign investigation. According to IMC counsel Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "This kind of fishing expedition is another in a long line of overbroad and onerous attempts to chill political speech and activism. Back in 1956, Alabama tried to force the NAACP to give up its membership lists -- but the Supreme Court stopped them. This order to IMC, even without the 'gag,' is a threat to free speech, free association, and privacy."
Responding to questions from IMC volunteers, the agents claimed that their investigation concerned the source of either one or two postings which, they said, had been posted to an IMC newswire early Saturday morning. These posts, according to the agents, contained documents stolen from a Canadian government agency, including classified information related to the travel itinerary of George W. Bush (who was at that time in Quebec City, participating in Summit of the Americas meetings). Agents claimed that the Secret Service was notified of the existence of such posts by a tip from an (unnamed) major commercial news network.
The agents were unable to provide URL addresses or titles for the postings they described. Additionally, the court order contained a non-working IP address, rather than an address assigned to any of the IMC sites. IMC volunteers nevertheless were able to identify two articles posted to the Montreal IMC which partially matched the agents' incomplete description. These articles, posted first in French and then in English translations (http://montreal.indymedia.org/front.php3?article_id=505, 514 and 515), contain sections of documents purportedly stolen from a Quebec City police car during Friday night anti-FTAA demonstrations; the documents detail police strategies for hindering protesters' mass action. It does not appear that any materials were posted to any IMC site containing Bush travel plans.
Although the agents were concerned with only two posts, the court order demands "all user connections logs" for a 48-hour period, which would include individual IP addresses for every person who posted materials to or visited the IMC site during the FTAA protests. IMC legal counsel Nancy Chang, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, comments that "the overbroad sweep of the information demanded by the FBI raises the disturbing question of whether the order is calculated to discourage association with the IMC."
Since the incident occurred, several persistent, yet false, rumors have taken shape; some of these found their way into coverage published in Monday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer and other commercial media. We can now dispel some of the more common of these: No search warrant was served on IMC in connection with the court order, and nobody connected to the Seattle IMC has been arrested. No equipment or logs have been seized; the agents' visit was not a "raid."
Now, free from restrictive court orders, the Seattle IMC will be able to cover this important story as it continues to unfold.
The Seattle Independent Media Center was launched in Fall 1999 to provide immediate, authentic, grassroots coverage of protests against the WTO. Just a year and a half later, the IMC network has reached around the world, with dozens of sites scattered across six continents. IMCs are autonomously organized and administered, but share collective organizational principles and certain technological resources. Each IMC's news coverage centers upon its open-publishing newswire, an innovative and democratizing system allowing anyone with access to an Internet connection to become a journalist, reporting on events from his or her own perspective rather than being forced to rely on the narrow range of views presented by corporate-owned mainstream media sources.
During last weekend's widespread protests against a proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, many IMC sites collaborated to produce comprehensive coverage of demonstrations taking place in Quebec City and Sao Paulo, as well as solidarity protests in cities across the U.S. and along the Mexican and Canadian borders. The breadth and depth of coverage produced by the IMC's global network eclipsed that of many corporate media outlets.
The Seattle IMC remains committed to its mission: "The Independent Media Center is a grassroots organization committed to using media production and distribution as a tool for promoting social and economic justice. It is our goal to further the self-determination of people under-represented in media production and content, and to illuminate and analyze local and global issues that impact ecosystems, communities and individuals. We seek to generate alternatives to the biases inherent in the corporate media controlled by profit, and to identify and create positive models for a sustainable and equitable society."
Seattle Independent Media Center
1415 3rd Ave.
Seattle, WA, 98101
David Burman, IMC counsel
Perkins Coie LLP
1201 Third Ave., 40th Floor
Seattle, WA 98101
Alan Korn, General Counsel
David Sobel, General Counsel
Electronic Privacy Information Center
Suite 200, 1718 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20009
Nancy Chang, Senior Litigation Attorney
Center for Constitutional Rights
666 Broadway, 7th Floor
New York, NY 10012
Lee Tien, Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation
454 Shotwell Street
San Francisco, CA 94110