Labor and U.S. Politics

Secret Government Informer Infiltrated Minnesota Activist Groups

By Nick Pinto

The Twin Cities activists who had their homes raided by the FBI last September are starting to learn more about why they’re being investigated by a Chicago grand jury in relation to material support of terrorism.

Lawyers for the activists have learned from prosecutors that the feds sent an undercover law enforcement agent to infiltrate the Twin Cities Anti-War Committee in April 2008, just as the group was planning its licensed protests at the Republican National Convention.

Going by the name “Karen Sullivan,” the agent blended in with the many new faces the Committee was seeing at meetings in the lead-up to the RNC. But she stayed active afterward, attending virtually every meeting.

“She presented herself as a lesbian with a teenage daughter, and said she had a difficult relationship with her daughter’s father, which is one of the reasons she gave us for not being more transparent about her story,” says Jess Sundin, a member of the Anti-War Committee and one of the activists who has received a subpoena from the Chicago grand jury. “It was a sympathetic story for a lot of us.”

Sullivan told the group she was originally from Boston but that she had had a rough childhood and was estranged from her family. She said she had spent some time in Northern Ireland working with Republican solidarity groups.

Sullivan at first said that she didn’t have any permanent address in the area, but she eventually got an apartment in the Seward neighborhood. She claimed to be employed by a friend’s small business, checking out foreclosed properties that he might buy. The cover story of a flexible job schedule let her attend all the meetings she wanted to, and to have individual lunches with other activists.

“She really took an interest,” Sundin said. “It raised some suspicions among other members at first, but after the other undercover agents from the RNC Welcoming Committee came out, and no one in our organization did, we figured we didn’t have any. Besides, we didn’t think we had anything we needed to be secretive about.”

Sullivan began to take on more responsibilities with the organization, chairing meetings, handling the group’s bookkeeping, and networking with dozens of other organizations.

In the summer of 2009, Sullivan joined two other Twin Cities activists in a trip to visit Palestine. Somehow, when they landed in Tel Aviv, Israeli security forces knew they were coming, and that they were headed to Palestine.

The three women were told they could get on the next plane back home or they could face detention. Sullivan took the flight. The other two women chose detention and were ultimately deported.

Attorneys for the activists have also learned that prosecutors are especially interested in a small donation the women intended to give to their host organization in Palestine, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees. The group is registered as an NGO with the Palestinian Authority and not listed as a terrorist group by the United States.

Last fall, Sullivan disappeared from the Twin Cities, telling her fellow activists that she had some family business to take care of. She never came back. On September 24, the FBI launched a series of early morning raids on the homes of members of the Anti-War Committee and the Freedom Road Socialist Organization.

The FBI would not confirm or deny Sullivan’s identity as a government agent or comment on this story by the time of publication. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago has said it will not comment on anything related to the grand jury investigation.

Last fall the Justice Department’s Inspector General released a scathing report that criticized the FBI for invoking anti-terrorist laws to justify their investigations and harassment of groups including Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and the Catholic Worker.

“This is exactly what the Inspector General’s report was talking about,” Sundin told City Pages this morning. “The FBI doesn’t have the right to spy on us. It’s an abuse of our democratic rights. We’re supposed to have freedom of association, not, ‘You can associate but we’re going to spy on you.’”

—Protest News, City Pages, January 12, 2011