Friday, January 12, 2007

Snitching among the clergy?

Warning: This blog post contains pure speculation generated as part of a thought exercise. Take the comments, in that vein, for what they're worth.

Regular readers know I've long tracked various snitching scandals on Grits and think the practice is a frequently abused and inherently abusive aspect of the American justice system that needs to be curtailed.

Without question the use of informants is a crucial, nearly indispensible tool for law enforcement. But especially when used to investigate petty or victimless crimes, or when informants are self-interested or unreliable, snitching can also undermine not just faith in the justice system but the very bonds of trust and loyalty that underlie all positive human relations. Prof. Sasha Natapoff has calculated that one in 12 young black men returning from prison might be informants for law enforcement at any given time.

To see how widespread use of informants can corrupt public life and civil society, it's worth looking at what, at least before the USA's War on Drugs, was the most extensive informant system the world had ever seen: Communist secret police in Russia and Eastern Europe. Christianity Today has published an article about a new Polish archbishop who collaborated with the Communist secret police in that country while it was still under the yoke of Soviet control ("What to do with a former Communist informant?," 1-12):
Tomasz Terlikowski of Newsweek Polska told Polskie Radio, "This question about the past has a very real impact on Poland's present. Today we are facing this issue: Can a person who collaborated with the regime be the moral and theological authority for a whole diocese? From what we learned about Archbishop Wielgus, his collaboration might have meant as many as 20 years of informing the Communist regime about what was happening in the church. And the main aim of the Communists was the destruction of the church."

Some estimates say that 15 percent of the church leaders in Poland — seen as a cornerstone of resistance against communism — cooperated with the secret police. One memo from 1978, for example, counted 12 Polish bishops among the security service's collaborators.

Those are big numbers, and such a widespread practice makes me wonder if ministers are commonly used as informants in American policing? I wonder if any ministers during the civil rights movement, for example, ever got caught up in the informant racket the way Catholic priests did in Poland? Or have ministers in the pro-life movement been pressured to "flip" and inform on activist members of their flock? Have US Catholic priests been pressured to identify undocumented immigrants among their parishioners? I don't know, I've never really thought about it or researched it, but I'll bet they have.

People tell their ministers things they'd tell no one else, and in theory a priest-penitent privilege provides protection for those conversations. But if police can find leverage to coerce a minister into cooperating - anything from overlooking criminal acts to agreeing not to expose extramarital affairs, or even flat out paying for information - it doesn't seem far fetched to me to think officers might play that card as part of an investigation. Whether a minister succumbs would essentially be a question of individual character.

No conclusions to be drawn here, only questions raised. But I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for more on this angle as I continue to study the topic of police informant use.


Anonymous said...

The FBI, since Hoover's inception of it, has been predominately an espionage agency. They distinguish between evidence, which can be used in court, and 'intel', which they illegally obtained from wiretaps, bugs, or 'black bag jobs' (burglaries).

A telling example of the FBI's preference for collecting dirt rather than evidence became obvious when 'Deep Throat' was revealed to be Mark Felt, and that everything he leaked to Woodward and Bernstein came from FBI files. Now that we know the FBI knew about Nixon's schemes (by committing espionage against the White House), consider how many people the FBI prosecuted all told: none. All the incriminating evidence that came up in the Watergate hearings came from outside federal law enforcement. The FBI witheld damning evidence from the prosecution.

So, now that you understand it is SOP for law enforcement to collect 'intel' and to use the dirt to blackmail people, take a fresh look at your questions.

AlanBean said...

You raise an interesting question, Scott. There is little fear that the FBI is pressuring the vast majority of pastors, Catholic or Protestant, to spill the beans. Most pastors have no beans to spill. As a class, we shun controversial subjects. Looking back, I am amazed at how little I knew about the criminal justice system prior to our opposition to the Tulia drug sting.

On the other hand, pastors located in high poverty-high crime neighborhoods frequently identify with the police far more than with the folks dealing drugs on the corner. Police departments get all kinds of citizen complaints from poor, minority residents who don't like what's going down on the corner. But that sort of activity is completely volitional.

As your narrative suggests, it is the tiny portion of the American clergy who could be described as activists who are most likely to draw the attention of the authorities--especially the FBI. I remember the day Friends of Justice took a bus filled with 46 victims of the sting (and their family members) to Austin. We intentionally loaded the bus in the courthouse parking lot. A late middle-aged gentleman in a western cut suit, Stetson and western boots was leaning against the open door of his SUV snapping pictures--for whom, I can't say. The Texas Rangers perhaps. My guess is that clergy involvement in any activity that challenges the status quo (either from the right, the left, of a mix of the two) would inspire a similar response. You will remember the paranoid and entirely disproportionate response to the Freedom Ride and the Never Again Rally. The folks in positions of authority tend to be paranoid because they have such a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Canadians have recently learned that the RCMP kept tabs on Tommy Douglas (the father of Canadian Medicare and the founder of North Americas first ruling socialist government). This began in 1935, when Douglas was still pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. This was interest to me because Douglas (recently voted the greatest Canadian of the 20th Century in a CBC poll) was my father's pastor and Sunday school teacher.

Douglas went into full-time politics in 1935 partly because he received an ultimatum from one of his deacons. Had the RCMP been talking to the deacon? Did they talk to Douglas's more traditional colleagues? The RCMP did attempt to gain information from the FBI on Douglas's activities while a graduate student in sociology during the early 1930s.

Of course, those were highly volatile times--much like the present. I am currently attempting to become an American citizen; I've even had my interview and passed the little exam. But the FBI won't give me a security clearance, so my application is on indefinite hold. Is this related to my work? Almost certainly.

But the FBI has never approached me and asked me to flip on my fellow activists. For one thing, most of us are perfectly transparent. I, for instance, hardly have an unpublished thought. If you want to know what I think, do a Google search. That's pretty typical.

The same is probably true of the pro life movement, the peace movement, etc. Our strategies are generally straightforward, legal and public. The FBI don't have to stir up internal dissension--we take care of that for them.

Anonymous said...

Lots of snitches in the civil rights movement, ministers and otherwise.