The Spymaster's Tale

An activist from the Black Panthers was recently accused of being an agent for the FBI. When hearing such reports, it's helpful to consider the kind of stories that police tell. Here's one from the last decade. I call it "The Spymaster's Tale."

by Daniel Borgström
updated September 21, 2012

No spy story should be taken uncritically, least of all when it comes from a spymaster who's still in the business. The spymaster in this story was the Oakland Police Department's Howard Jordan, who told the ACLU that two undercover Oakland police officers had infiltrated an antiwar demonstration at the Port of Oakland on May 12, 2003.

That was the day five hundred protesters returned to the Port of Oakland for a successful demonstration in defense of our First Amendment rights. It was five weeks after the April 7th police attack during which fifty nine people including longshoremen, journalists, legal observers and peaceful protesters had been injured by police firing "less-lethal munitions." The April 7th attack received world wide attention and was even investigated by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. So, as a human rights abuser, our City of Oakland achieved a distinction generally reserved for countries such as Egypt, Israel and Indonesia.

Police records later obtained during litigation reveal that Howard Jordan was directly in charge of some of the officers who fired the "less-lethal munitions." Jordan was then a lieutenant: he was later promoted to captain, and then to Deputy Chief. In 2011 Mayor Jean Quan chose him for her Chief of Police. Some might call him a rising star while others consider him a thug, but for this story I find it more appropriate to just call him Spymaster Jordan.

Jordan's espionage activities came to light in a 2006 ACLU report "The State Of Surveillance: Government Monitoring of Political Activity in Northern & Central California," written by Mark Schlosberg. The
San Francisco Chronicle picked up the story and on July 28, 2006 published an article titled "Police spies chosen to lead war protest."

Nobody doubted the police sent spies to pose as protesters. The surprise was to read in the Chronicle that two undercover officers were "elected to be leaders in the May 12 demonstration an hour after meeting protesters that day."

Now that's astoundingly impressive! Think about it--those two undercover cops just walk in, unknown, and within an hour they've been elected to the leadership by the activists themselves!

Impressive, yes, but on carefully reading that I began to wonder what sort of "leadership" positions they were talking about. That, and other details in the story didn't look right.

So I contacted people who'd organized the demonstration, and they confirmed my suspicions. "The use of the word 'elected' tells me that someone didn't do their research," Susan Quinlan told me. Another person said, "From what [Jordan] told the ACLU, [the police] don't seem to know how we operate."

"Nothing the police deputy chief says matches up with how we organized for May 12," David Solnit told me. "No one was elected to anything. All the decisions the deputy chief claimed they made were made in a general meeting."

The general meeting, called a "spokes council," was attended by eighty to a hundred people, according to David Solnit and others. A lot of people were involved in the decision-making process. It wasn't decided upon by a committee.

Other parts of the police story were also dubious. According Spymaster Jordan, his undercover agents played a role in determining the route that protesters took to the Port. Actually, if you're marching, on foot that is, there is only one logical route from the usual gathering place at the West Oakland BART station to the Port. That was determined decades ago by the people who designed the street, bridge and road system.

There remains an even more intriguing quirk in the spymaster's story. Jordan revealed the identities of the two undercover officers, and their names were printed in the SF Chronicle. Spies don't like to have their cover blown, and it seems bizarre that any police official would so casually give out such information.

My theory is that Jordan did send out a couple of cops to infiltrate the demonstration. The infiltrators may also have attended some meetings, or maybe they didn't bother. In any case they perhaps decided to tell Jordan a really, really good story -- that they'd been elected to lead the protest, and were even the ones who determined the route the demonstration took to the port. If that's what they did, it wouldn't have been the first time that spies gave an outlandishly embellished report. It's also possible that Jordan saw the story for what it was, but liked it anyway, and passed it on. But why did he blow their cover? Perhaps it was for telling him such an obvious lie -- Howard Jordan can be pretty vicious at times.

The moral of this story should be that not everything that comes from the horse's mouth is anything to put money on. I would suggest it as a cautionary tale. More recently, there has come to light some evidence from FBI files that Richard Aoki, an activist with the Black Panthers during the 1960s and 1970s, was an agent for the FBI. That is an extraordinary claim which should require extraordinary evidence; so far the evidence is scanty, and comes from a less than reliable source. I'm glad to see that people are looking at those reports critically, not taking them at face value. That story needs to be carefully investigated.

updated September 21, 2012

An earlier version of the above article was published in Z Magazine in 2006

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