Mark Goes to the Darkside: My Talk to the FBI Training Academy, Quantico, VA.by Mark Rudd
Early last summer, out of the blue, I received an e-mail from an instructor at the FBI Training Academy in Quantico, Virginia, inviting me to speak to a terrorism class at the academy. This was a thing of great wonder to me. To put it mildly, I was gob-struck.
For seven and a half years of my life, from 1970 to 1977, I was hunted by the FBI.
For most of my life I’ve considered the FBI to be the moral equivalent of the Gestapo. Political repression is the name of their game: their crimes include the entire anti-communist witch hunt of the fifties including the Rosenberg executions, the post World War I Palmer Raids against Bolsheviks and anarchists in which they destroyed the Wobblies among other organizations, murder and persecution of the Black Panthers and American Indian Movement activists, to cite just a few.
And they want to pay me to come to speak to them!!??!!
Special Agent Andrew Bringuel explained in his e-mail that he teaches a graduate level course at the Academy on conflict resolution and terrorism to international and domestic police officers, mid- to upper-level “executives.” “My class deals with the motivation and tactics used by radicals and the government’s response,” he wrote. “The class is designed to give the police commander alternative response strategies to suppression/containment and exploitation strategies. It really is a conflict resolution course that emphasizes strategies for opening dialogues with activist groups in order to maintain social order. The goal being to resolve their grief before it becomes violent or criminal.”
Grief? Conflict resolution? Dialogues? Coming from an FBI agent? What’s going on here?
Special Agent Bringuel anticipated my reluctance to visit Quantico: “With 100 years of history of course mistakes were made. Lessons learned from mistakes like COINTELPRO have led to reforms and oversight of the agency. I can assure you that my intentions are purely academic and I believe your experiences, insight, and opinions will add value to my class.”
My head started to spin. COINTELPRO, a decade-long program of infiltration, surveillance, dirty tricks, and even murder to disrupt the left was a mistake? Was this a joke? Some sort of a trap, where I’d be lured into their den and then eaten alive?
I turned to my friends and family for advice. I presented the question as a moral dilemma: is there any value in talking to the FBI, or will they somehow be able use my information to suppress dissent?
My old friend, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who often serves as my inner voice of political correctness, told me in one short message, “I wouldn’t go if I were invited.” My brother, David, who is notoriously cautious, as lawyers should be, wrote back that “nothing good can come of this.” One friend told me I might lose credibility with leftists whom I’ve just recently gotten to listen to me.
Also on the negative side was that the FBI is now conducting well-documented illegal surveillance on all kinds of completely legal anti-war groups under the guise of Homeland Security. I myself was visited in 2003 by a couple of agents—one I recall had the ominous name Bill Root— from the “FBI Joint Taskforce” in Oakland, CA. I refused to talk with them.
After working myself up for a couple of days, should I shouldn’t I?, I decided to take the leap: I wrote Special Agent Bringuel that I would accept his invitation.
At the deepest level, I wanted to go to the FBI and taunt them, “Nyah, nyah, nyah, you didn’t catch me.” Of course I wasn’t going to say that to them, but I sure was thinking it. At a more rational level, my curiosity had won out: I wanted to see what I could learn about the FBI by going there. Also—and this is no less important—I believe deeply in the non-violent precept to never dehumanize the enemy. It was my duty, I felt, to talk with the FBI and these cops person-to-person. Besides, nothing I tell them I haven’t already said in print.
Special Agent Bringuel met my friend Philip and myself at a security building at the perimeter of the FBI complex set in the midst of the Quantico Marine base. He was a fit, compact man forty-five years old, dark-complected, very friendly and very intelligent and well-spoken. It turned out that Andrew’s mother was Mexican and his father of Portuguese descent; he had grown up an Army brat, he said, never having experienced racism. As he drove us on a tour of the base, he told us about his fifteen-year history in the Bureau, having worked white racism cases, including mediating a stand-off at Jordan, Montana, and a death-threat against Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as several environmental-dumping cases that he was particularly proud of.
I asked about FBI ranks. Bringuel was actually a Supervising Special Agent, higher ranking than a regular Special Agent. His particular expertise was analysis and mediation; he implied that he no longer was involved in the “tactical” (meaning guns and busts in the night) end of FBI work. He explained to us that he was trying to get across to his students that terrorists don’t wake up one day and decide to plant bombs; they go through stages which he called advocacy, activism, extremism, terrorism, and sovereign (state power?). I agreed to tell my life story to the class and solicit questions.
I couldn’t resist a little dig. “You know,” I said, “I always thought that the reason you guys never caught me was a failure of analysis. You had too much information and didn’t know what to do with it.”
Special Agent Bringuel, a model of self-control, wouldn’t rise to my bait. He replied simply that there are better and worse agents.
The class consisted of twenty-one white men, all seemingly between their late thirties and early fifties. They were mid-career, mid-level police executives completing an eleven-week course.
At the beginning of my talk I asked how many of the students had seen the documentary movie The Weather Underground, which the instructor had made available as a resource in the library. Three raised their hands. That was not a good sign.
As I told my story of an eighteen year-old freshman at Columbia University who begins to learn of the injustice and illegality of the war in Vietnam, I tried to read the reactions of my audience, something I’m pretty experienced at. They were impassive. Did the criticism of Vietnam ring any bells? It didn’t seem so. By the time I explained the radical view of Vietnam as an imperialist war, just like the current war in Iraq, the large majority of the class, who were already sitting in the back rows, had their arms crossed in front of their chests, as if to say, “This is the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard.” No one seemed to show any recognition when I mentioned various social movements—labor, civil rights, women, gays.
A few people, especially those students who had seen the movie, asked questions about my motivation at different points. Andrew wanted to bring out his stages to extremism and terrorism theory through looking at my life. The majority of the students didn’t appear to be too interested in my shit or in his. One student put it bluntly, “You break the law, I’m going to bust you.” I suddenly realized, “Hey! This is a bunch of cops!”
When I told them about the police riot at Columbia in April, 1968, in which hundreds of people, including by-standers, were beaten, they looked incredulous. One student said, “That couldn’t have happened.” Another said, “Maybe it happened, but it would never happen now.” I brought up the complete police lockdown of the streets at the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) demonstration in Miami in 2003 as an example of extreme repression operating under the guise of anti-terrorism. Twelve million dollars of Homeland Security anti-terrorism money bought that. They didn’t appear to know anything about this.
Similarly, we discussed at length the 1969 murders of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark by a joint FBI and Chicago Police Department squad. They tried rationalization: “If you snipe at me, I’ll shoot you back,” one cop said. I told them that a civil court had confirmed the murders as such. The murders also determined for me, at the time, my decision to pursue clandestine armed revolution.
Special Agent Bringuel, obviously thinking about conflict resolution, asked, “Could anything have changed the situation?”
I replied, “No, by then it was war.”
Toward the end of my talk someone asked how I got out of my federal charges. I explained that in 1973 a black federal judge appointed by LBJ, Judge Damon Keith, upheld our lawyers’ motions for the government to disclose the source of their evidence. The judge happened to be one who was concerned with the civil rights of accused plus there was a connection to Watergate which he wanted to explore. Since the FBI had committed numerous illegal actions in searching for us, such as break-ins, wiretaps, and kidnappings—later proven in the conviction of Assistant FBI Director Mark Felt—the federal prosecutor dropped the charges. I commented that such a thing would never have happened today, since the PATRIOT Act removes all constitutional rights for people accused of terrorism.
I paused, looking at the audience. “I’ll bet you’re thinking, ‘I wish it had been now so they could have nailed this fucker.’” Everyone laughed.
I suddenly had a realization which I shared with them, something I had never been aware of before that moment: the dropping of our federal charges, in October, 1973, completely changed my view of the importance of civil liberties and constitutional rights. Having experienced first hand protections of the rights of the accused, I could no longer call them “bourgeois civil liberties.” They are real and worth defending.
This was a turning point in my life, but I’m not sure whether the students caught the point.
In general, I had two feelings while speaking to the class: first, the police students did not appear to know any history, which was a surprise to me. It was very hard for me to stop and explain concepts like the nature of the Vietnam war or imperialism satisfactorily and still keep the thread of my own story. We would have needed much more time for discussion and feedback so I could have figured out what they understood. We had to cover so much ground that I never even got to explain the justifications for revolutionary violence, Weatherman and the Weather Underground, nor my thinking about revolution and violence now. I never did lay on them the one punch line I was planning, that all violence, including war and state violence, is terrorism.
Second, related, was the feeling that the students really didn’t care to know anything. The majority didn’t appear all that interested in either my history or Special Agent Bringuel’s theories. Maybe they were in this alternatives-to-violence-against-terrorism class just to punch their tickets toward promotion. Maybe they were all little Bushies who had bought all the administrations lies and irrational explanations. Maybe they were most comfortable believing that there are only two sorts of people, good and bad, cops and criminals, and going deeper into motivations and nuance is of no utility. Terrorists are criminals and it doesn’t matter whether they are born bad or decide to be bad or become bad through frustration and despair, it’s all one. “They hate our freedom,” is as deep an explanation as they care to consider.
A small minority of the class, however, did appear to be engaged. One student who had seen the movie and had asked several questions came up to me to introduce himself after the two hour class. He was an assistant chief of police in a small southern city. He thanked me for speaking and then said, “I hold my force to the highest possible professional standards.” I thanked him in return.
The only person in the room darker than Agent Bringuel was his intern, a young black woman, a student at Howard University in D.C. who wanted to become an FBI Special Agent. After the talk, she introduced herself. Her interest had been piqued by a comment I made to the effect that the war in Iraq and the current U.S. meddling in the Middle East had an up side, that the U.S. didn’t have the capacity to invade Venezuela and overthrow Hugo Chavez for the horrible crime of sharing the revenue from Venezuela’s oil resources with the poor. She told me that one of her professors at Howard had just come back from a conference in Venezuela and had very positive things to say about that country. She promised to introduce us, which she did the following week via e-mail.
On the way out, Special Agent Bringuel took us by the Wall of Martyrs, which has pictures of all the FBI agents killed in the line of duty. We stopped and I made reference to all the many victims of the FBI, naming in particular my friend Robby Meeropol’s parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and another friend, Phil Reno, who committed suicide in 1981 after a lifetime of FBI harassment.
Taking out a copy of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, which I had put in my pocket that morning, I asked for permission to recite the prayer. Agent Bringuel crossed himself. Philip, a Christian Palestinian who learned Hebrew in an Israeli prison, bowed his head, and I read, “Yitgadal, v’yitkadash, sh’may rabah….” Philip said he could understand the Aramaic, a precursor language to Arabic.
As we walked toward the security desk, we realized that Philip had lost his ID badge, which had to be turned in before we could get our driver’s licenses back. We considered retracing our steps through the last three hours. Agent Bringuel thought for a second, and said, “Let’s check in my car right here.” Sure enough, the badge was there.
I complimented him on his investigative skills. He smiled, “You know, I would have caught you.”
I laughed and said, “Maybe you would have.”
Postscript: A few days later I received an e-mail from Special Agent Bringuel. He wrote, “We spoke for about 30 minutes about your visit and the class unanimously said you should come back to future classes.” That was a bit of a surprise since I thought they had hated me. I sure would have liked to have been a fly on the wall for that discussion.
If I have a new career as a guest lecturer at the FBI Training Academy, I promise to donate the first half million dollars I make to Leonard Peltier.