NEW ORLEANS (CN) – The founder of a post-Hurricane Katrina relief organization claims the FBI infiltrated his group after he criticized the Bush administration for its inept response to the disaster. Malik Rahim, founder of Common Ground Relief, says the FBI blew off his FOIA requests by claiming that responding would violate the privacy of its informant, who has spoken publicly about his work as a snitch.
Rahim, a New Orleans community organizer and former Black Panther, says the FBI rejected his FOIA request, and appeal, seeking information about FBI informant Brandon Darby. Rahim says Darby worked with him at Common Ground, bringing supplies and other assistance to residents of the city battered by Hurricane Katrina.
Darby was involved with Common Ground from September 2005 until 2008. Whether Darby was an FBI agent before becoming a prominent member of Common Ground remains unknown, and is part of what Rahim seeks to find out.
Using an anarchist-inspired motto, “Solidarity not Charity,” Common Ground Relief says its missionis to provide short-term relief for victims of hurricane disasters on the Gulf Coast, and long-term support in rebuilding communities in the New Orleans area.
Common Ground claims it has organized more than 35,000 volunteers, has gutted more than 3,000 homes, provided for basic needs of thousands of New Orleans residents and founded a now-independent health clinic and women’s shelter. The center also has a free legal clinic that provides assistance in urgent situations such as wrongful home demolition, succession documentation, mortgage application assistance, contractor fraud and most types of civil litigation.
Julie Hurwitz, who filed the original Freedom of Information Act request on behalf of Rahim in 2009 said in a telephone interview Tuesday that it is “a travesty that an organization that was doing as much good as Common Ground” had to deal with Darby, who “swooped in and became a member of the organization, meanwhile sabotaging it from the inside.”
Hurwitz said it is known now that Darby was an FBI informant on others besides Common Ground. She called Darby a provocateur, a tool of law enforcement who provokes others to commit illegal acts in order to prosecute them.
Darby’s role as a federal informant became known during his testimony in the trial of two 20-something anarchists who were arrested for possession of unused, homemade Molotov cocktails during the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis.
After Darby’s identity as informant became known, a letterhe allegedly wrote, in which he confessed to being an FBI snitch, was published by indymedia.org.
The letter states: “There are currently allegations in the media that I have worked undercover for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This allegation no doubt confuses many activists who know me and probably leaves many wondering why I would seemingly choose to engage in such an endeavor. The simple truth is that I have chosen to work with the Federal Bureau of investigation.”
Hurwitz said transcripts from the Molotov cocktails trial have never surfaced.
“We’re trying to find out exactly what the nature of Darby’s relationship with the FBI was between those years from 2005 to 2008” when Darby was a prominent member of Common Ground, Hurwitz said.
Rahim says in his federal complaint that he requested documents pertaining to the FBI’s infiltration of Common Ground Relief, but the FBI refused, saying release of the documents would violate Darby’s privacy.
According to the complaint: “After Hurricane Katrina, on or around September 5, 2005, Malik Rahim, plaintiff in this matter, organized a relief organization named Common Ground Relief, which included Common Ground Relief, Common Ground Collective, Woodlands Project and Common Ground Health Clinic (collectively ‘Common Ground’) in New Orleans, Louisiana.”
“Common Ground provided substantial relief supplies and tens of thousands of hours of volunteer assistance to devastated communities along the Gulf Coast.
“Common Ground and Malik Rahim criticized government and corporate entities for failing to meet the needs of Gulf Coast Communities after Hurricane Katrina.
“Within weeks of Hurricane Katrina and the creation of Common Ground by plaintiff, Brandon Darby appeared, spent considerable time at Common Ground, and became one of the active leaders in the organization.
“Brandon Darby later admitted under oath that he was a confidential informant for the FBI and has admitted his relationship with the FBI to The New York Times, the Austin Chronicle, National Public Radio and in many other public forums; Brandon Darby has identified himself as an FBI confidential informant in open court.”
Rahim’s FOIA request sought “‘all records, documents and things …’ related to surveillance, investigation, use of informants and agents, planting or gathering ‘evidence,’ and any other activities pertaining to Malik Rahim including anything related to Common Ground Relief and Brandon Darby. [Ellipsis in complaint.]
“On March 17, 2009, the FOIA request of Malik Rahim was denied on the grounds that the FBI would not respond to a FOIA request concerning another individual in addition to Malik Rahim without a ‘privacy waiver’ being filed by Brandon Darby.”
Rahim says he appealed the denial on July 30, 2009. Among the reasons stated in the appeal was “the public right to be informed about what their government is up to,’ citing U.S. Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of Press, 489 U.S. 749, 733 (1989); the fact that if Brandon Darby was an undercover informant for the FBI during his time at Common Ground, then that would be an act of such public concern that it would overcome personal privacy exemptions, citing National Archives & Records Administration v. Favish, 541 U.S. 157, 172 (2004).”
But the Justice Department upheld the FBI stonewalling: “On September 25, 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Information Policy stated it was affirming the original refusal of the FBI to release any information pertaining to Brandon Darby and further affirmed the refusal of the FBI to neither confirm nor deny the existence of any records responsive to the request. They said: ‘Without consent, proof of death, official acknowledgement of an investigation, or an overriding public interest, confirming or denying the existence of the records your client requested would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.'”
Rahim wants the FBI and Department of Justice ordered to make an immediate, expedited search for the documents, and turn them over.
His lead counsel is Davida Finger with the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, Law Clinic.
Finger said in a statement issued in conjunction with the Center for Constitutional Rights: “Brandon Darby has spoken at length to the media about his involvement with the FBI, including during his time at Common Ground. We believe that Malik Rahim, Common Ground, and our community deserve to know the full extent of Mr. Darby’s relationship with the FBI while doing post-Katrina work.”
Rahim said in the statement: “In the difficult times following Hurricane Katrina, we welcomed Mr. Darby into the community and shared everything we had with him. Mr. Darby inserted himself as a leader of Common Ground but, looking back, many of Mr. Darby’s actions appear to have intentionally caused rifts within the organization and the community. In retrospect, he was doing everything you’re supposed to do as a government agent in that situation – making an effort to divide and conquer. Accordingly, we have filed suit to compel the FBI to release all information concerning any collaboration with Mr. Darby during his time working with Common Ground in New Orleans.”
Co-counsel in Rahim’s complaint include Bill Quigley of New Orleans, Julie Hurwitz of Detroit, and Sunita Patel with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City.
In its statementannouncing the filing of Rahim’s complaint, the Center for Constitutional Rights claimed that the FBI’s infiltration of Common Ground was not an aberration: “As thousands of FOIA documents released over the years have revealed, government surveillance and infiltration of activist groups is a widespread practice in the United States. Indeed, crackdowns on Occupy Wall Street and related protests across the country and the recent revelation of a New York security consultant’s infiltration of the Zuccotti Park encampment suggest that government efforts to suppress dissent and disrupt peaceful protest continue. Mr. Rahim and his lawyers have filed this lawsuit to enforce the government’s obligations under the Freedom of Information Act to provide information to the public about government conduct. The requested information will shed light on the FBI and other law enforcement activities in New Orleans during the tumultuous months and years following Hurricane Katrina.”