July 27 broke beautifully—not too hot, a light breeze, Mount Hood gleaming in the distance. At least 1,000 people, from old hippies to young anarchists, took to the walkway on the Interstate Bridge over the Columbia River while dozens of kayakers dipped their paddles into the blue-gray water below.
Three people rappelled down the side of the southbound span and unfurled a massive banner reading, “Coal, Oil, Gas, None Shall Pass.”
TV and newspaper cameras ate it up and spit it out—a loud message against fossil fuel exports through Oregon, and just the splash hoped for by the environmental group Portland Rising Tide.
But even as they marveled at the spectacle, Rising Tide leaders kept their eyes on one man.
Vahid Brown looked like any young guy in the city: slender and bearded, with a bandana tied over his sandy brown hair. He’d been showing up at activist events in Portland for the previous 18 months, spotted at Occupy Mount Tabor a few weeks before, and also at a march protesting the not-guilty verdict of George Zimmerman in the killing of Treyvon Martin.
Brown brought friends and earned an epic sunburn holding a sign with the words “fossil fuel exports” crossed out in red. “People were honking and cheering, and people were flipping us off, saying, ‘Go get a job,’” Brown tells WW. “It was great.”
He had no idea fellow radicals were watching him, or why: He’d been marked as a snitch, and three weeks ago Brown was named—and smeared—on the Internet with an allegation he was an FBI mole.
It hardly mattered if the accusation was true.
We live in a time of intense paranoia. Thanks to the revelations brought by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, we know none of us are free of the prying eyes of the United States government. The daily news is filled with stories of the National Security Agency, without a warrant, wiretapping our calls and monitoring the things we Google.
Activists know the feeling: The U.S. government has spied on or infiltrated political groups for decades.
The degree to which law enforcement has successfully gotten inside activist groups working today is unknown. But activists say they’re right to believe there’s always a mole.
“You have to assume everyone you didn’t give birth to is an FBI agent,” says Jessie Sponberg, an activist who recently led Occupy Mount Tabor.
So what’s happening to Vahid Brown in Portland is the extreme outcome of that history.
Brown, 36, says he is a progressive and, as he once described himself, “an activist and woodland creature who has been reading poetry at Portland coffeehouses, ballrooms, and basement bars for nearly twenty years.” He helped lead an Occupy movement at Princeton University.
Brown has been attacked anonymously on several websites as an “agent of the state”: Brown, a nationally recognized expert on Islam, once taught FBI agents about terrorism. And that has led to him being blacklisted.
“I’m not a government agent,” Brown, a 2007 Reed College grad, says. “I’m not going to inform on anyone. I’m not a threat to anyone.”
Dale Carpenter, a constitutional law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, says what the activist community has done is legal. After all, the information is public, he says, and in light of the national revelations on spying, groups are understandably leery. (The American Civil Liberties Union said the same thing when declining to comment to WW.) But Carpenter says there’s a larger gray area about whether it was the right thing to do.
“If he’s really not a government agent, and I have no way of knowing, what a horrible Kafkaesque world he’s living in,” Carpenter says. “He’s trying to fight the government while he’s outed publicly as an agent. It’s an impossible situation to be in. You cannot prove your innocence—you’re just trapped.”
Activists say they have no idea if Brown is a snitch—his association with the enemy is all they need to know about him.
“We’re not putting him on trial here,” Portland Rising Tide organizer Trip Jennings says. “We just have to decide if he’s somebody we want to be working with. He sketches people out—and that’s a good enough reason.”
Brown has hardly left his apartment in the days following Oct. 4, when an anonymous post on several activist websites first declared, “Watch out for FBI trainer Vahid Brown.”
He recently agreed to talk to WW at a picnic table at Gigantic Brewing, near his home. He feels comfortable here, one of the few places he’s gone to since the news of his past went viral.
“I’ve been anxious as hell,” Brown says, taking a drag from an organic American Spirit. “I’ve been dealing with the expectation that I’m going to be recognized—and recognized with hostility.”
It was not the welcome he expected upon his return to Portland in 2012.
Brown spent his first 10 years in Evansville, Ind., where his father was a doctor. He was raised in the Baha’i faith, which preaches peace, believes all religions come from the same god and is uncommon in the United States.
Always an outsider, Jacob Vahid Brown (who goes by his middle name, which means “unique” in Persian) says he recalls being terrified by the prospect of nuclear war and environmental destruction.
“Sometimes it felt like I was the only one paying attention as the world was falling apart,” he says. “I was having recurring nightmares about a nuclear holocaust at 7 and 8 years old.”
That overarching sense of justice, says Sara Brown, his ex-wife and mother of his two daughters, was “really heavy for a kid.” She says Brown told her stories about getting suspended for fighting because he was for standing up for other kids. “He has always had that extra awareness and sensitivity,” she says.
Brown’s family moved to Redmond, Wash., in 1989, when Brown was in seventh grade. By then, he’d grown a short mohawk. Within months, he was at the head of a multischool walkout of Redmond ’tweens, who left classes and marched on city hall to protest the Persian Gulf War.
After just six months at Redmond High School, he dropped out, moved to Woodburn to teach English to migrant groups, taught classes on a Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota and landed for a while in Portland, where he immersed himself in the city’s slam poetry scene. He spent three years between 1995 and 1998 teaching English in China.
“My politicization happened when I was living in China,” he says. “We wanted to save the world, and had these notions about what we were going to do.”
Damien-Adia Marassa, a friend from Portland who was with Brown in China, says he and Brown spent their free time in Guangdong reading Malcolm X, Karl Marx and Paulo Freire.
“Vahid has always had radically democratic politics,” Marassa says. “FBI? Yeah, right. He’s zero threat.”
Activists in Portland should be suspicious about the FBI and other government agents: Their ranks have been infiltrated many times.
Starting in the 1930s, the city’s police force formed a “Red Squad” aimed at “monitoring, tracking, collecting information, infiltrating, harassing, and intimidating members of the Communist Party and labor organizers,” according to Lewis & Clark College’s Portland Social History Tour. The police kept up the practice until the early 1980s.
The tradition continues. Portland and Eugene were home to the largest U.S. branch of the Earth Liberation Front. The FBI labeled ELF as America’s “top domestic terrorism threat” after the group put environmental radicalism on the front page. ELF “elves” claimed credit for burning down the Oakridge Ranger Station in 1996 and torching 30 SUVs at a Eugene dealership in 2001. According to Mother Jones, the FBI used informants to help convict 14 ELF members since 2006.
Lauren Regan, founder of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, says activists call that time the “Green Scare.”
The FBI, she says, holds extensive training for agents to transform themselves into elves.
“The FBI was trained on how to walk the walk,” Regan says. “They were taught to wear the black hoodies and Carhartts. They were taught the language, how to ‘talk vegan.’”
Sometimes agents are there to simply gather organizational data, Regan says, and other times they’re planted to catch or even encourage crimes.
That’s intentional, says James Wedick, a retired FBI agent who is now a consultant and expert witness in Sacramento.
“They need informants,” Wedick says. “The bureau needs info to uncover plots out there where individuals are conspiring to do harm to other folks. They need to put out feelers, they need to be collecting intelligence to build a case, arrest them and bring them to justice before something bad happens.”
More recently, documents released by police last year related to Occupy Portland mention “a source” who helped cops gather information on the movement. Also last year, several Pacific Northwesterners were jailed for refusing to talk about other protestors at the 2012 May Day riots in Seattle. Media coverage revealed the FBI had been monitoring the jailed activists’ movements even before the event.
It’s a page from the agency’s playbook, says Trevor Aaronson, author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism. It’s all about having a chilling effect on potential activists.
“By inserting informants into some groups, you create the perception they’re inserting someone into all groups,” Aaronson says. “In a way, that works to undermine the group itself.”
Brown in 1999 moved back to Portland, where he met his wife. He later enrolled at Indiana University, where he says he studied Near Eastern cultures and refined the six languages he now speaks: Persian, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, French, German and Spanish.
Then 9/11 happened. Brown recalls a Muslim woman being punched in the face on campus and Muslim friends having food thrown at them in a Pizza Hut.
Sara Brown recalls her then-husband escorting Muslims to and from class, for protection. “He would leave early, stay late and be late for his own classes so he could walk them to theirs,” she says.
Brown left Indiana University in 2003 and enrolled at Reed College, majoring in Islamic studies. His Reed classmates don’t recall Brown being all that politically active.
“He struck me as a very brilliant person but also a very insightful person,” says Margot Kniffin, a fellow religion major at Reed. Brown’s thesis adviser, Professor Steve Wasserstrom, called Brown “brilliant” in an email and wrote he was among the best students he’s had in 27 years.
After graduation, Brown landed a job at the Combating Terrorism Center in West Point, N.Y., a think tank founded in 2003 by Vincent Viola, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and former chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism expert who worked with Brown, says the center allows researchers to work without any agenda imposed. (The center recently released a paper on far-right domestic terrorism that ignited the outrage of the Tea Party.)
Fishman, now working with the New America Foundation and living in Menlo Park, Calif., says Brown didn’t fit the mold of a traditional counterterrorism researcher.
“We always understood Vahid to be this sort of nutty environmentalist from Portland,” Fishman says. “I really do mean that in a positive way.”
At the Combating Terrorism Center, Brown taught FBI agents courses such as Origins of Islam, Islam and Militancy, Modern Jihadist Groups, and Radicalization. (Brown is named in records on FBI training obtained by the ACLU and posted on its site.)
Brown says he struggled with the decision to take the job but thought it important to teach law enforcement about the complex reasons al Qaeda and other terrorist cells exist.
“The FBI is the executor of policy in this discursive Islamophobic atmosphere,” he says. “I had an opportunity to help a group of people untangle that complexity.”
Brown’s prominence grew. He was twice featured on NPR as a “terrorism expert and teacher.” And he co-authored a book on terrorism, Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012, published this year.
All of this was easily found on Google and his Linkedin profile—something he would not have allowed, he says, if he were an FBI mole.
“I can’t figure out why the FBI would choose to use someone who has a very public association with them,” Brown says.
For Jessie Sponberg and many others in the Portland activist community, any association with the FBI—academic or not—is unacceptable.
“The only way you will ever see my name and the FBI’s name on the same piece of paper is if the word ‘Wanted’ is also on it,” he says.
He and other radicals say that’s because law enforcement continues to watch them.
Portland Rising Tide has been growing steadily stronger and more influential in environmental activism since it started in 2007 to stop liquefied natural gas.
Rising Tide preaches nonviolent protest, but member Trip Jennings says if fossil fuel export terminals are built in the Pacific Northwest, “We are willing to put our bodies on the line.”
“The point of the FBI is to suppress anything that challenges the status quo,” adds organizer Hart Noecker. “If we get 50,000 people who are willing to go get arrested to stop something, that will actually stop something. That is a threat to the status quo. There are people who make hundreds of millions of dollars on fossil fuel extraction.”
Jennings says FBI agents have been visiting the homes of family of Rising Tide members.
“Why would the FBI need to visit our parents?” he asks. “We’re an above-ground group. All of our actions get press. There’s nothing to hide. It’s intimidation.”
Activists elsewhere say Brown’s background didn’t bother them.
Brown quit working at the Combating Terrorism Center in 2010 and went to Princeton to earn his Ph.D. As the national Occupy movement took off, he was a key member of Occupy Princeton, helping to infiltrate and demonstrate at recruitment meetings for JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs on the New Jersey campus.
Occupy Princeton organizers Derek Gideon and Josh Shulman say Brown was a steady force. (Gideon says Brown told him early on about his work with the Combating Terrorism Center.) Brown kept in touch with other Occupy groups, reporting back with accounts of police and FBI infiltrations in other branches.
“He always seemed very brave about these things,” Shulman says. “I think it motivated a lot of other people. Not only did he seem brave, he was consistently there.”
When he returned to Portland last year, Brown signed up for rallies and marches on Facebook, tied prayer flags on the trees in Chapman Square in solidarity with Turkish protestors and demanded the city protect Mount Tabor’s reservoirs. At the coal export protest in July, Noecker says Brown volunteered to be a police liaison—something few organizers do. “Once people found out who he was, it was like, ‘Wow,’” he says.
Brown says he didn’t work as a police liaison; he ferried messages between protestors on both ends of the Interstate Bridge. That behavior (related only in hindsight by other activists) didn’t lead to accusations against Brown.
That happened because Brown was lonely.
Brown and his wife, Sara, had divorced in 2009, and he signed up on the Internet dating service OKCupid. Sources in the activist community say in July a woman checked out Brown’s OKCupid profile, Googled his name and found out about his work as an FBI trainer at the Combating Terrorism Center. Alarmed, she told a friend who was active in Portland Rising Tide.
Two months ago, Brown heard from Facebook friends who told him other activists had contacted them and warned them about his past.
“They didn’t say who contacted them and I didn’t ask,” he says. “I was just hoping that they would reach out to me.”
On the morning of Oct. 4, Brown says he got an email from Rising Tide asking him directly about his FBI involvement. “If you don’t answer,” the email said, “I’ll have to assume the worst.”
Brown was at his neighborhood coffee shop for his morning ritual—a fried egg sandwich and a coffee with soy milk—when a friend sent him the post from activist site Seattle Free Press linking him to the FBI. Two Reed students at the shop told Brown they’d just seen the post.
“I thought, ‘Oh, wow, strangers in public are going to see this in my own neighborhood,’” Brown says. “That was the beginning of my anxiety about this whole thing.”
He returned to his apartment and answered the email from Rising Tide. By then, the post was all over the Web. Online comments were laced with anger and profanity: “The information this scumbag provides the FBI with will, without any doubt, be used to further their insanely fucked up mission,” Seattle Free Press posted on Facebook.
The hatred directed toward Brown shocked his friends and family, especially his ex-wife, with whom he remains close. Sara took to the Web to defend the man whom she says knows her better than anyone in the world.
“I was attacked by other people who asked, ‘Are you collecting a paycheck with the FBI, too?’” she says. “On another one, they said I’m the chick who used to screw him. Nice misogyny from the left.”
Noecker denies writing this month’s blog post outing Brown. But he defends it. “There’s too much of a risk to have someone around who not only worked for the FBI but trained them,” Noecker says.
Following the posts, Portland Rising Tide asked Regan, from the Civil Liberties Defense Center, to hold a training session on how to spot a mole. Potential warning signs: anyone who asks too many questions or urges members to take extreme actions.
Regan says she does not trust Brown. She’s advised Rising Tide to disassociate itself from him.
“The fact that he is or was an FBI employee makes it so he needs to find another form of activism,” Regan says.
Brown says the attacks have succeeded in one way: He fears he cannot take part in local activist events, which now could be wrought with potential for confrontation.
“Are they going to pelt me with eggs?” he asks.
While talking at Gigantic Brewing, Brown tenses a bit as a man approaches. The man extends his hand to Brown to introduce himself. It turns out he’s one of the brewery’s owners.
He releases Brown’s hand. “I heard about everything that’s going on,” the man says. “My dad didn’t teach me much, but he did teach me one thing: Don’t let the bastards get you down.”