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May 21, 2004
My Neighbor, The Informant

On April 23, 2004, I linked to a story about China's government using civilian informants to maintain its authoritarian grip on the country.

I said, "The article is worth reading for many reasons, not the least of which is how easily someone can move from being a "loyal citizen" to being a tool of unscrupulous powers."

Recruiting a Spy

Li was a junior when the Ministry of State Security first approached him. His pager chirped one afternoon, and a number he didn't recognize flashed on its screen. When he called, a man answered, introduced himself as a ministry official and asked if Li would meet him at a downtown hotel.

It was May 1999. Colleges across Beijing were seething over the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, which many Chinese refused to believe was accidental. Li was among the thousands of students who had participated in protests outside the U.S. Embassy. But he was confident he had done nothing wrong, and agreed to see the agent.

"I didn't think it was a big deal," recalled Li, then 27, a broad-shouldered, square-jawed man with a crew cut. "I wasn't afraid of anything then. And I was curious, because the Ministry of State Security is so mysterious and secretive."

Two men met him in the lobby of the hotel and thanked him for coming. They were young, he recalled, perhaps in their thirties, and explained they were investigating an unemployed teacher who had been delivering angry speeches on college campuses, denouncing the United States and blasting the Communist Party for not standing up to it.

Li knew who the agents were talking about and helped them, because he believed the man might be dangerous.

But the agents continued calling him and began asking questions about the general situation on campus and what students were saying about various issues. Again, Li agreed to help them.

Li eventually found himself reporting on study group he belonged to, eight students or recent students discussing the need for reform in China. An informal study and discussion group, mind you, not an armed and violent insurrection. Eight kids. Talking.

Still…it's China.

Three and a half years later, four members of the study group are in prison, serving sentences of eight or 10 years on subversion charges. Two are free but living with the shame of implicating the others when interrogated by police. And Li has fled to Thailand, where one recent afternoon he leafed through some of his reports and struggled to explain why he became an informer and betrayed his friends.

If you didn't read the article the first time I linked to it, I urge you to go read it now. The ease with which Li was nudged from sharing information about someone he did believe to be dangerous to informing on his friends needs to be understood.

Today I read this.

“Kathleen Kelly, report to Admin.” I was routinely cleaning toilets in my dorm at Pekin Federal Prison Camp when the loudspeaker summoned me to the Administration Building. “You’re going next door,” said the guard on duty. “Someone wants to talk with you.” During a five minute ride to the adjacent medium-security men’s prison, I quickly organized some thoughts about civil disobedience and prison terms, expecting to meet a journalist. Instead, two well-dressed men stood to greet me and then flashed their FBI badges. They had driven to Pekin, IL from Chicago, where they work for the FBI’s National Security Service.

Both men were congenial. They assured me that their visit had nothing to do with Voices in the Wilderness violations of federal law in numerous trips to Iraq, where we regularly delivered medicines and medical relief supplies. Nor had they come to talk about why I’m currently imprisoned for protesting the US Army’s military combat training school in Fort Benning, GA. What they proposed was “a conversation,” since they had information which they felt would help me and Voices teams in Iraq, both now and in the future. Likewise, I could help them, and perhaps improve national security, by answering some of their questions.

I said I’d prefer not to talk with them without a lawyer present. The more talkative agent quickly nodded and suggested a follow-up visit with a lawyer. He spoke further about his favorable impressions of Voices in the Wilderness and how useful it would be for our travelers to better understand some of the people whom the Iraqi government, under Saddam Hussein, had assigned to work with us as “minders” during our past trips. He said he had information about “bad things” they had done or had planned to do. Having this conversation would benefit Voices in its travel to other countries as well. (Voices has focused solely on Iraq, although some of us have visited other countries with other groups).

Fortunately, Kathleen Kelly isn't a naïve college student.

At that point, I decided not to talk with them at all. “I don’t want to accuse either of you of any wrongdoing,” I said, wanting to be polite, “but your organization has used methods that I don’t support, and sometimes your job requires you to lie.”

The parallel isn't exact, and the article isn't actually about recruitment of civilian "spies" in the USofA, but I found the parallel behaviors worrying.

(I was especially dismayed by the part where she was warned not to go public about them visiting her for fear of retaliation from "Arabs", but that's more because of the bigotry implicit in saying that all "Arabs" have a single mindset than anything else and is outside the scope of this entry.)

I'm privately celebrating Kathleen Kelly's courage.

(For those interested, Bull Connor information here and here and here.)

Posted by AnneZook at 07:54 AM