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Snitch Paranoia and Uncle Sam's Very Big Ears

Whatever you think of the accomplishments of the American Indian Movement, Indian-on-Indian violence is a lasting stain on the organization. It was not good for health or longevity to be “bad-jacketed,” talked about as a “snitch.”

In the end, AIM’s penchant for brandishing and sometimes using firearms made it a target of FBI infiltration for the twin purposes of gathering intelligence and sowing paranoia. Instead of taking over tribal governments or building lasting institutions outside of tribal governments, AIM devolved into a criminal defense committee.

I must acknowledge that the Wounded Knee Legal Defense-Offense Committee, known in our circles as WKLDOC, pronounced “Wickledoc,” was uncommonly successful. The general criminal conviction rate in the federal circuit where the hundreds of Wounded Knee II cases were tried was 78.2 percent. The conviction rate of AIM and their allies was 7.7 percent, which reflected not only skilled lawyering but also prosecutorial overreaching. The government set out not just to enforce the law, but also to crush AIM.

While I disagreed with AIM’s tactics and priorities, AIM had to be defended from the government’s abuse of power. The civil rights law firm where I worked sent two lawyers to WKLDOC, who wound up doing state court cases, of which there were many, because the local authorities were out to get AIM as much as the feds were. Since I was a baby lawyer at the time, I got stuck handling the paying cases of the two lawyers we sent, leading one of my detractors to observe, “the biggest risk Russell took at the Knee was a paper cut.”

Fair enough to say I’m speaking from the cheap seats, but somebody better speak up because the issues that motivated AIM abide in Indian Country even as the veterans of Wounded Knee II die off. I considered AIM’s gun waving to be a terrible mistake at the time, such a terrible mistake that I had to be coerced by the government to support the AIMsters. They were right on most of the issues they took up but their tactics were doomed.

Even considering the number of veterans in our number, we cannot win a shooting war with the US. Who has the most guns? And how long did it take for us to turn guns on each other over paranoia about “snitches?”

Whoa, Russell, even paranoids have enemies and AIM had plenty of snitches. True enough, but if AIM had its head on straight, the snitches would have had nothing with which to work. Had we brought militant nonviolence rather than guns, we would either not have broken the law or broken it in public and invited others to do the same. We would cast ourselves as victims of violence rather than perpetrators of it, and the government would have fallen right into that public relations trap.

While I would hope that snitch paranoia would go away because our tactics give snitches nothing to report, there’s a new reason to shun violence. The NSA revelations have made clear that government now has enough ears that it hardly needs eyes.

Whoa again, Russell, the National Security Agency does not listen to our conversations. It only captures “metadata,” the location of a call, the duration, and the number called.

For purposes of this discussion, I will assume that the promise only to capture metadata will be kept.

When I worked for the USAF branch of NSA, I crunched numbers with a big computer, bigger than most computers that were used in the day outside of the military or research universities.

I was amazed at the conclusions the computer could draw from an analysis of aircraft sorties over X period of time in Y geographical area. Remember, I was a teenager and easily amazed.

That introduction meant I was not surprised at the scientific study showing recently that telephony metadata can identify 95 percent of individuals from just four data points and the only parts of the metadata they used were the location of the four calls, the duration of the calls, and the numbers called.

Nor was I surprised to understand that the GPS coordinates are embedded in every call as well as in every picture taken by a smart phone. Meaning that there's no effective distinction between a cell phone and a landline. Either can be located when used.

What if the cell phone used was a "burner?" In the hoovered up metadata, there is who made the phone, which can lead to where it was sold. It would take a while to find out who bought it. But the burner still provides the data points necessary to ID an individual--time of call, duration of call, numbers called.

What if the burner only called other burners?

Now I begin to understand former CIA director Michael Hayden's remark that "we have killed people based on metadata." And if you had a database of all the burners sold in the US, it would be no great trick to pinpoint who bought multiple burners at the same time and get the necessary four data points on the unidentified individual.

If Big Brother ain't watching you, Big Data is. Take the seed number and go out three or four hops and you have a database it would take a huge computer to seine though. Big Brother has huge computers. A “hop” is taking the numbers called from the “seed number” (the one that piqued your interest) and bringing in all the numbers those numbers called. Repeating that operation three or four times yields a database too big to search by hand but easy enough to search by algorithms off the shelf.

By this method, the government has the means to know who you are, who your sexual intimates are, whether you use illegal drugs, whether you gamble off the books—and whether you are dumb enough to do politics with guns or explosives.

Accessing this data is limited by cost and by time. Consider the possibilities like the Eye of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings. Because it can see anything anywhere, it's no threat until it decides to focus.

Put another way, to know everything is to know nothing. The reason for computer algorithms is to dig down into all that is “known” and pick out what is useful.

It’s unlikely that Martin Luther King, Jr. or César Chávez, at the height of their effectiveness, ever attended a meeting without a government informant tagging along. It made no difference. As to the Weathermen, the Black Panther Party, and AIM, government snitches did make a difference. Only because, in those organizations, thinkable tactics included violent felonies. It’s true that if government agents could not find violent felonies, they did not hesitate to gin some up. In some organizations, the snitches could gin up violence if they didn’t find any. In other organizations, they could not.

When the government is up to evil, surveillance cuts against the government. The most powerful weapon on the side of the Indians at Wounded Knee I was a newfangled device called the camera. The photos from Wounded Knee didn’t stop Medals of Honor for the slaughter of unarmed non-combatants, but they did stop the shooting part of the Indian wars when the general public did an upchuck over the frozen, dead bodies.

We were born to fight the colonial governments. As long as Indian nations have any remaining assets worth looting, the modern Indian wars will continue. As long as our cause is just—and protecting what little our people have left is certainly so—and our tactics are appropriate to the times, the federal Eye of Sauron can focus all it likes and capture nothing but a sharp stick. It should be us, not the government, chanting, “the whole world is watching.”

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.