Fighting Back

Police Informants Within Libertarianism

by Wendy McElroy

Everyone knows there are police informants within the libertarian movement. With FBI and other police gathering files on everyone from Quakers to home schoolers, it is not credible that the authorities would not keep tabs on a movement ripe with anarchists, gun-rights advocates, anti-war dissidents, drug legalization activists, civil rights lawyers, political candidates, etc. And whomever the police informants are, they probably fit into one of two categories: someone who just seems a bit ‘off’ or someone you’d never, ever suspect.

Ernest Withers is a cautionary tale concerning the latter. A recent headline in The National Post ((09/14/10)) read: Celebrated civil rights photographer was FBI informant.

Ernest Withers had seen it all. Described as the ‘original civil rights photographer’ he was present at some of the most important events during the movement. He snapped photos at the murder scene of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Little Rock crisis. Little did his subjects know that he was doing some other work on the side. Memphis Commercial Appeal has revealed that Withers, who died in 2007 at the age of 85, worked as a paid FBI informant. The newspaper possesses numerous reports that show Withers was spying on King and other activists, including the day before his murder when he met with what the FBI thought were black militants.

In a sense I have been lucky in that, on two occasions, I have been able to identify individuals who were informing on the movement.

The first one was a casual girlfriend who dated a rapid-fire series of my anarchist friends. What better way to get information than to dangle sex in front of libido-crazed radicals who were utterly naive about all-things-female. One of her conquests came to me in confidence for advice. In a fit of jealousy, he had ransacked her desk and found files of correspondence to and from the FBI; oddly, the question he had was whether he should confess to her…or would that ruin the relationship?

The second one was a fellow with whom I served on a committee during a phase in which I experimented with reforming organizations from within. Along with two other libertarians, I joined the committee to steer it more toward libertarianism. After a particularly grueling session in which we all debated and then cast anonymous votes on a slate of issues, something happened (I cannot recall what) and it became necessary for the manner in which people cast their votes to be revealed. The ‘fellow’ had voted in the opposite manner of how he had debated, and he’d done so consistently. Following up on his background left me no doubt that he was infiltrating the movement.

There have been at least two other people who have made me suspicious. One fellow wandered around a convention announcing that he was a tax rebel and pigeon-holing individuals to demand whether they paid taxes or not. When I replied, “I don’t discuss financial matters with strangers,” he attacked me as the sort of coward who kept libertarianism from ‘going anywhere’. I left. The second fellow was and is a prominent libertarian who has never felt ‘right’ to me. There is objective reason for my suspicion but much of it is a gut instinct. Enough said.

I called myself lucky to have identified two informants early on because the experiences led me to formulate a policy of conduct when dealing with other libertarians. It is natural to feel an affinity with people who share your values, and no one wants to go through life with his or her guard up constantly. But we live in a politically dangerous world in which virtues like candor can become weapons used against us. There are movement people to whom I would trust my life and to whom I speak openly about personal matters….not many but a few. Overwhelmingly, however, I draw hard lines to preserve the privacy necessary to protect myself against the ‘fellow-travelers’ with whom I am associating.

Reduced to bullet-point statements, some of them are:

–never provide personal information that is not otherwise readily available
–never speak of anything illegal that you may have ever done
–never speak of anything illegal that others you know may have done
–do not get into speculative gossip e.g. about who does drugs or not
–do not leave personal papers lying around or unattended in public
–do not have strangers as overnight guests. They are poised to search your files
–do not write an email or a letter that you wouldn’t publish in the New York Times
–do not discuss sensitive matters over the phone
–when speaking to someone you trust make sure you know who else is nearby
–break off any conversation in which a person is asking inappropriate questions
–do not fill out surveys re: anything but your political beliefs. They are not anonymous
–do not take strangers at face value. Do not be rude, of course, but take things slowly
–be transparent about your beliefs and your activities within the movement
–be suspicious of those too candid about their own illegal or financial dealings

As North America — and especially the United States — slides deeper into a police state, the problem of informants will only grow. With it, so should your caution.