The following text is from the Center for Constitutional Rights. I first read this piece sometime in 1996 or so. The contact info listed below is dated.
If an Agent Knocks - Federal Investigators and Your Rights
People opposing U.S. policies in Central America
, giving sanctuary
to refugees from Guatemala
, struggling for Black liberation
, and against nuclear weapons
, are today more than ever
likely to receive visits from FBI
agents or other federal investigators. Increasingly, agents are also
visiting the families, friends, and employers of these activists.
is designed to answer the most frequent questions
asked by people and groups
experiencing government scrutiny
, and to help them develop practical responses.
What is political intelligence?
Political intelligence is information collected by the government about individuals and groups. Files
secured under the Freedom of Information Act disclose that government officials have long been
interested in all forms of data. Information gathered by government agents ranges from the most
personal data about sexual liaisons and preferences to estimates of the strength of groups opposing
U.S. policies. Over the years, groups and individuals have developed various ways of limiting the
collection of information and preventing such intelligence gathering from harming their work.
Do I have to talk to the FBI?
No. The FBI
does not have the authority to make anyone answer questions (other than name and
address see errata), to permit a search without a warrant, or to otherwise cooperate
investigation. Agents are usually lawyers, and they are always trained as investigators; they have
learned the power of persuasion
, the ability to make a person feel scared, guilty, or impolite for
refusing their requests for information. So remember, they have no legal authority
to force people to
do anything -- unless they have obtained an arrest or search warrant
. Even when agents do have
warrants, you still don't have to answer their questions.
Under what laws do the agents operate?
In 1976, FBI guidelines regulating the investigation of political activities
were issued by Attorney
General Edward H. Levi
. Criticized by liberals
alike, the guidelines were issued in
the wake of a Congressional committee's report of highly questionable activities by the FBI,
monitoring the activities of domestic political groups seeking to effect change. The report exposed
the FBI's counter-intelligence
) under which the agency infiltrated groups,
on, and directly interfered with individuals engaged in activities protected by the
rights to freedom of expression
The FBI COINTELPRO program was initiated in 1956. Its purpose, as described later by FBI
Director J. Edgar Hoover, was "to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize
activities" of those individuals and organizations whose ideas or goals he opposed. Tactics included:
falsely labelling individuals as informants; infiltrating groups with persons instructed to disrupt the
group; sending anonymous or forged letters designed to promote strife between groups; initiating
politically motivated IRS investigations; carrying out burglaries of offices and unlawful wiretaps; and
disseminating to other government agencies and to the media unlawfully obtained derogatory
information on individuals and groups.
In 1983, Attorney General William French Smith issued superseding guidelines that authorized
"domestic security/ terrorism" investigations against political organizations whenever the FBI had a
reasonable belief that these groups might violate a law. The new guidelines permitted the same
intrusive techniques the FBI used against organized crime.
The Smith guidelines were justified by the Attorney General's observation that "our citizens are no
less threatened by groups which engage in criminal violence for political... purposes that by those
which operate lawlessly for financial gain." He concluded: "we must ensure that criminal intelligence
resources that have been brought to bear so effectively in organized crime and racketeering
investigations are effectively employed in domestic security/ terrorism cases." The guidelines provide,
therefore, no safeguards to protect against infringements of First Amendment rights.
Worst, they ignore the history of COINTELPRO abuses, and abolish the distinction between regular
criminal investigations and investigations of groups and individuals seeking political change. They fail
to limit the investigative techniques used to obtain data on political groups, so that now the FBI may
use any technique, including electronic surveillance and informers, against political organizations.
Today, the FBI may begin a full investigation whenever there is a reasonable indication that "two or
more persons are engaged in an enterprise for the purpose of furthering political or social goals
wholly or in part through activities that involve force or violence and a violation of the criminal laws
of the United States." The FBI has interpreted "force or violence" to include the destruction of
property as a symbolic act, and the mere advocacy of such property destruction would trigger an
investigation. Even without any reasonable indication, under a separate guideline on "Civil Disorders
and Demonstrations Involving a Federal Interest," the FBI may investigate an organization that plans
only legal and peaceful demonstrations.
Another set of rules governing federal intelligence gathering is Executive Order 12333, in force since
1981. It authorizes the FBI and CIA to infiltrate, manipulate and destroy U.S.political organizations,
as well as to use electronic surveillance -- under the pretext of an international intelligence
What federal agencies are likely to be interested in a citizen's political
activities and affiliations?
The FBI is still the major national intelligence-gathering agency. There are also many other federal,
state, local and private investigative agencies. At least 26 federal agencies may gather intelligence,
including the Immigration & Naturalization Service
, Internal Revenue Service
, and the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
. Local police agencies sometimes contain
"special services" units and narcotics
or other "strike forces" in which federal, state, and local
agencies cooperate. The Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency
active when a political organization has or is suspected to have international contacts. Military
security agencies and increasingly significant "private" research institutes and security agencies also
A recent Freedom of Information Act request on behalf of the Livermore Action Group, an
anti-nuclear organization, revealed that the Navy, the U.S. Marshal's Service, and the Marine Corps
all sent agents to the Group's public meetings and kept newspaper reports of such meetings. Most
chilling was the revelation that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) -- the federal
agency charged with implementing martial law in the event of a nuclear war -- was also watching the
Federal and state, local and private agencies, all tend to share information in a variety of ways.
How does the FBI learn about citizens and organizations?
Political intelligence is gathered from public sources, such as newspapers
. It is also
collected by informers who may be government employees or people recruited by them. Political
intelligence is also collected through FBI visits to your home or office. We are here most concerned
with this aspect of intelligence gathering.
Agents may be sent to interview people after FBI officials decide there is a "reasonable indication"
that an organization or person meets the guidelines for a "domestic security" investigation. Such
interviews are a primary source of information, for most people are not aware of their right not to
talk to federal agents.
Most people are also unaware of the limits to the power of FBI and other investigative agents. Many
people visited by agents are also afraid of being rude or uncooperative. Agents may be friendly and
courteous, as if they are attempting to protect you or your organization, or express admiration for
your organization and its goals. Occasionally, the FBI may persuade a disaffected member of an
organization to give them information about other members, including their personal lives, character
A major job of FBI agents is to convince people to give up their rights to silence and privacy. For
example, after a Quaker pacifist spoke in Anchorage, Alaska, at a memorial service for El
Salvador's Archbishop Romero, FBI agents visited a local priest and interrogated him about the
speaker. The agents asked about the speaker's organizational affiliations and expressed fears about
"terrorist connections." The agents informed the priest that they would do a "computer check" on the
speaker and his wife, and asked the priest if the two might do violence to the U.S. President,
scheduled to visit the area. These interrogations were repeated in the community by agents who later
admitted there was no basis for their questions about "terrorist connections" and the danger to the
What if I suspect surveillance?
is the best course, no matter who you suspect, or what the basis of your suspicion. When
possible, confront the suspected person in public, with at least one other person present. If the
suspect declines to answer, he or she at least now knows that you are aware of the surveillance
Recently, religious supporters of a nation-wide call to resist possible U.S. intervention in Central
America noticed unfamiliar people lurking around their offices at 6 a.m., but failed to ask what they
wanted and who they were. If you suspect surveillance, you should not hesitate to ask the suspected
agents names and inquire about their business.
The events giving rise to suspicions of surveillance vary widely, but a general principle remains
constant: confront the suspected agents politely and in public (never alone) and inquire of their
business. If the answer does not dispel your suspicion, share it with others who may be affected and
discuss a collective response. Do not let fears generated by "conspicuous" surveillance create
unspoken tensions that undermine your work and organization. Creating fear is often the purpose of
obvious surveillance. When in doubt, call a trusted lawyer familiar with political surveillance. Please
do not call the number that was printed here as the Movement Support Network Hotline,
because it is no longer active, and is now the private residence of an unrelated person.
How should I respond to threatening letters or calls?
If your home or office is broken into, or threats have been made against you, your organization, or
someone you work with, share this information with everyone affected. Take immediate steps to
increase personal and office security. You should discuss with your organization's officials and with a
lawyer whether and how to report such incidents to the police. If you decide to make a report, do
not do so without the presence of counsel.
What rights do I have?
1.The Right to Work for Change
. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the
rights of groups and individuals who advocate, petition, and assemble to accomplish changes
in laws, government practices, and even the form of government political intelligence gathering
is not supposed to interfere with these rights.
2.The Right to Remain Silent. The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution provides that every
person has the right to remain silent in the face of questions (other than name and address)
posed by any police officer or government agent.
Since 1970, however, federal prosecutors may request judges to order a subpoenaed witness
to testify, after a grant of immunity, at a grand jury hearing or at a criminal trial. This grant of
immunity means that your Fifth Amendment right to refuse to testify is taken away. What is
given to you is only the promise not to use your testimony against you in a subsequent criminal
prosecution. But you can still be charged with a crime. Failure to testify after a grant of
immunity is discussed on page 12 below.
3.The Right to be Free from "Unreasonable Searches and Seizures." Without a warrant, no
government agent is allowed to search your home or office (or any other place that is yours
and private) You may refuse to let FBI agents come into your house or into your workplace.
unless they have a search warrant. Politeness aside, the wisest policy is never to let agents
inside. They are trained investigators and will make it difficult for you to refuse to talk. Once
inside your home or office, just by looking around, they can easily gather information about
your lifestyle, organization, and reading habits.
The right to be free from "unreasonable searches and seizures" is based on the Fourth
Amendment to the Constitution. This Amendment is supposed to protect against government
access to your mail and other written communications, telephone and other conversations.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to detect government interference with writings and conversations.
Modern technology makes it difficult to detect electronic surveillance on a telephone line,
other listening devices, or cameras that record whatever occurs in a room. Also common are
physical surveillance (such as agents following in car or on foot), mail covers, and informers
carrying tape recorders.
What should I do if police, FBI, or other agents appear with an arrest or
Agents who have an arrest or search warrant are the only ones you are legally required to let into
your home or office. You should ask to see the warrant before permitting access. And you should
immediately ask to call a lawyer
. For your own physical safety you should not resist, even if they do
not show you the warrant, or if they refuse to let you call your lawyer. To the extent permitted by the
agents conducting a search, you should observe the search carefully, following them and making
mental or written notes of what the agents are doing. As soon as possible, write down what
happened and discuss it with your lawyer.
What should I do if agents come to question me?
Even when agents come with a warrant, you are under no legal obligation to tell them anything other
than your name and address. It is important, if agents try to question you, not to answer or make any
statements, at least not until after you have consulted a lawyer.
Announce your desire to consult a lawyer, and make every reasonable effort to contact one as
quickly as possible. Your statement that you wish to speak to the FBI only in the presence of a
lawyer, even if it accomplishes nothing else, should put an end to the agents' questions. Department
of Justice policy requires agents to cease questioning, or refrain from questioning, anyone who
informs them that he or she is represented by a lawyer. To reiterate: upon first being contacted by
any government investigator the safest thing to say is, "Excuse me, but I'd like to talk to my lawyer
before I say anything to you." Or, "I have nothing to say to you. I will talk to my lawyer and have her
or him contact you." If agents ask for your lawyer's name, ask for their business card, and say you
will have your lawyer contact them. Remember to get the name, agency, and telephone number of
any investigator who visits you. If you do not have a lawyer, call the local office of the National Lawyers Guild.
As soon as possible after your first contact with an investigator, write a short memo about the visit,
including the date, time, location, people present, any names mentioned by the investigators, and the
reason they gave for their investigation. Also include descriptions of the agents and their car, if any.
This may be useful to your lawyer and to others who may be contacted by the same agents.
After discussing the situation with your lawyer, you may want to alert your co-workers, friends,
neighbors, or political associates about the visit. The purpose is not to alarm them, but to insure that
they understand their rights. It might be a good idea to do this at a meeting at which the history of
investigative abuse is presented.
If I don't cooperate, doesn't it look like I have something to hide?
This is one of the most frequently asked questions. The answer involves the nature of political
"intelligence" investigations and the job of the FBI. Agents will try to make you feel that it will "look
bad" if you don't cooperate with them. Many people not familiar with how the FBI operates worry
about being uncooperative
. Though agents may say they are only interested in "terrorists" or
protecting the President, they are intent on learning about the habits, opinions, and affiliations of
people not suspected of wrongdoing. Such investigations, and the kind of controls they make
possible, are completely incompatible with political freedom
, and with the political and legal system
envisaged by the Constitution.
While honesty may be the best policy in dealing with other people, FBI agents and other
investigators are employed to ferret out information you would not freely share with strangers. Trying
to answer agents' questions, or trying to "educate them" about your cause, can be very dangerous --
as dangerous as trying to outsmart them, or trying to find out their real purpose. By talking to federal
investigators you may, unwittingly, lay the basis for your own prosecution -- for giving false or
inconsistent information to the FBI. It is a federal crime to make a false statement to an FBI
agent or other federal investigator. A violation could even be charged on the basis of two
inconsistent statements spoken out of fear or forgetfulness.
Are there any circumstances under which it is advisable to cooperate with an
Never without a lawyer. There are situations, however, in which an investigation appears to be
legitimate, narrowly focused, and not designed to gather political intelligence. Such an investigation
might occur if you have been the victim of a crime, or are a witness to civil rights violations being
prosecuted by the federal government. Under those circumstances, you should work closely with a
lawyer to see that your rights are protected while you provide only necessary information relevant to
a specific incident. Lawyers may be able to avoid a witness' appearance before a grand jury, or
control the circumstances of the appearance so that no one's rights are jeopardized.
How can grand juries make people go to jail?
After being granted immunity
and ordered to testify by a judge, grand jury witnesses who persist in
refusing to testify can be held in "civil contempt
." Such contempt is not a crime, but it results in the
witness being jailed for up to 18 months, or the duration of the grand jury, whichever is less. The
purpose of the incarceration
is to coerce
witness to testify. In most political cases,
testifying before a grand jury means giving up basic political principles, and so the intended coercion
has no effect -- witnesses continue to refuse to testify.
Witnesses who, upon the request of a grand jury, refuse to provide "physical exemplars" (samples of
handwriting, hair, appearance in a lineup, or documents) may also be jailed for civil contempt,
without having been granted immunity.
The charge of "criminal contempt" is also available to the government as a weapon against
uncooperative grand jury witnesses. For "criminal contempt" there is no maximum penalty -- the
sentence depends entirely on what the judge thinks is appropriate. Charges of criminal contempt are
still rare. They have been used, however, against Puerto Rican independentistas, especially those
who have already served periods of incarceration for civil contempt.
Is there any way to prevent grand jury witnesses from going to jail?
There is no sure-fire way to keep a grand jury witness from going to jail. Combined legal and
community support often make a difference, however, in whether a witness goes to jail and, if so, for
how long. Early awareness of people's rights to refuse to talk to the FBI may, in fact, prevent you
from receiving a grand jury subpoena. If the FBI is only interested in getting information from you,
but not in jailing you, you may not receive a grand jury subpoena.
What can lawyers do?
A lawyer can help to ensure that government investigators only do what they are authorized to do.
An attorney can see to it that you do not give up any of your rights. If you are subpoenaed to a
grand jury your lawyer can challenge the subpoena in court, help to raise the political issues that
underlie the investigation, and negotiate for time. Your lawyer can also explain to you the grand jury's
procedures and the legal consequences or your acts, so that you can rationally decide on your
A law enforcement official can only obtain your name and address if he or she has a reasonable
suspicion to believe that you have committed or are about to commit a crime (note #2). Thus, if an
FBI agent knocks at your door you do not have to identify yourself to him; you can simply say "I
don't want to talk to you," or "You'll have to speak to my lawyer," and then close the door. An FBI
agent, unlike a local police officer, does not have jurisdiction to investigate violations of state statute.
First Edition published March 1985.
Center for Constitutional Rights
853 Broadway, 14th Floor
NY, NY 10003
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) is a non-profit legal and educational corporation
dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Contributions to the CCR are tax-deductible.
Additional copies or this publication can be ordered from the Center for Constitutional Rights at the
address above. Your comments about this publication will be appreciated and will be useful in
preparing future editions.
This pamphlet was prepared by The Movement Support Network with the help of Linda Backiel,
Joan Gibbs, Jonathan Ned Katz, Margaret L. Ratner, Audrey Seniors, and Dorothy M. Zellner.
1.See Final Report of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations,
94th Congress, 2d Session, Report No. 94-755
2.See e.g. United States v. Hensley, 83 L. Ed. 2d 604 (1985); Kolander v. Lawson, 461
U.S. 352 (1983); Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47 (1979).