(note: I have continued my research into this topic and published two other articles on the subject, which you can find here and here. The second is the most complete. Also, this post was updated 1-15-16.)
I recently read one of Glenn Greenwald’s articles on Edward Snowden’s leaks. The story was called “How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations.” When I saw the diagram above, from a classified power point presentation created by NSA’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group, or JTRIG, I immediately thought of my old home, The Farm (an intentional community), because that diagram, to me, illustrated the dynamics that brought us together, and the dynamics that pulled us apart. But this power point presentation wasn’t just about the natural history of groups. It was about how to manipulate a group in order to destroy it. The “Old Farm” existed in the days before the internet, but the tactics JTRIG recommended would work for any organization, not just virtual ones.
In the article, Greenwald said
Critically, the “targets” for this deceit and reputation-destruction extend far beyond the customary roster of normal spycraft: hostile nations and their leaders, military agencies, and intelligence services. In fact, the discussion of many of these techniques occurs in the context of using them in lieu of “traditional law enforcement” against people suspected (but not charged or convicted) of ordinary crimes or, more broadly still, “hacktivism”, meaning those who use online protest activity for political ends.
The title page of one of these documents reflects the agency’s own awareness that it is “pushing the boundaries” by using “cyber offensive” techniques against people who have nothing to do with terrorism or national security threats,….
….Whatever else is true, no government should be able to engage in these tactics: what justification is there for having government agencies target people – who have been charged with no crime – for reputation-destruction, infiltrate online political communities, and develop techniques for manipulating online discourse? But to allow those actions with no public knowledge or accountability is particularly unjustifiable.
Discovering that this strategy was encoded in the NSA’s playbook reminded me of a time, thirty years ago, when I first intuited that there might have been more to the Old Farm’s demise than met the eye. (“The Old Farm” is a term used by current and former residents of the community to refer to its earlier, communal phase.) It was the year after “the change,” as the privatization of The Farm was termed (sounds like menopause, doesn’t it?), and the place was in considerable disorder. It had rapidly shrunk from fifteen hundred to four or five hundred residents, and it was still shrinking. In an abandoned office in The Book Publishing Company, I found a box of video tapes, all that remained of the considerable footage that had been shot late in the community’s history. (The video crew, lacking funds to buy tape, had frequently recorded over their old tapes once they had been shown on the community’s internal cable TV system, thus erasing many events from the archives.) The cable network was one part of the Old Farm that had not yet been dismantled or fallen into disrepair; so, with the community’s big reunion/festival coming up, I decided to assemble a “best of” tape to show on TV during the festival weekend. A neighbour had a double VCR and let me use it to view the archive and record the parts I wanted to keep. in the course of this review, I made a couple of very interesting discoveries.
The first did not, on the face of it, involve The Farm at all. It was an interview with a New York City resident who was talking about the FBI/COINTELPRO infiltration of community organizations–not just advocacy groups, but even community theater groups–in Harlem in the 1970s. According to him, the government’s aim had been to covertly destroy these organizations, so that nobody who was genuinely involved would realize they had been intentionally disrupted. “The agents I knew seemed like the hippest cats I had ever met,” he said. “They were the first people who ever talked up the idea of being ‘tribal’ to me.”
The other interesting discovery was an interview with one of the people who had been instrumental in orchestrating “the change.” In a pre-change interview with a TV news reporter, he praised The Farm, saying, “It’s a very tribal place.” In no other interview with any other person from The Farm (and I had plenty to choose from) did anybody use the word “tribal” in relation to The Farm. Just for the hell of it, I juxtaposed these two clips. I ended up with about four hours of video, and put it on two tapes.
It was a busy weekend. I have no idea how many people tuned in to any of my presentation, but one man, whose job on the Old Farm had been to photograph and video the community, said to me as he left the gathering that he had seen most of it. “Good job,” he told me. Later, in a conversation with Stephen Gaskin, the community’s deposed, but still resident, spiritual teacher, I found that he had not seen them. I offered to loan him the tapes. I ended up leaving them there for a long time, and when I finally asked for them back, the Gaskins could only find one tape. The one that contained the FBI/tribal juxtaposition had gone missing. When I checked back at the Book Publishing Company, the box of tapes that had been my source had gone missing, too. The guy who had told me “good job” had left the Farm, but remained on good terms with the Gaskins. Did he “borrow” it from them? I have only seen him once since then, and that was so long after I suspected him of tapenapping, and so briefly, that it didn’t even cross my mind to ask him about it–but then, if he had, would he have admitted it? Or even remembered it?
You may be asking yourself why this still matters, over thirty years after the fact. Before this essay is over, I will tell you, but there’s more groundwork to lay out first.
My wife and I recently saw a movie about The Farm, “American Commune,” and, while in many ways it was a love letter to a lost way of life, it also repeated unreflectively what has become the Official Line about why the Old Farm failed: we took in too many people and tried to do too much with insufficient resources, especially as residents’ children grew older and their lifestyle expectations rose.
I think there’s a lot more to it than that, but the film spends no more than a minute on this possibility, with Albert Bates, formerly one of the community’s lawyers, showing heavily redacted files obtained through the FOIA. He explains that they show that the FBI was pressuring the bankers to whom we owed money, resulting in, at the least, higher interest rates on the loans we had with them. What “American Commune,” and conventional wisdom about The Farm’s demise, ignores is that it was not the debts we incurred in the course of the day-to-day operation of the community that put us under. What took us out was a one-two punch from two major creditors.
The first punch hit when a local banker, who had been very generous about loaning us money, mostly to finance our attempt to become big-time farmers, and who had been very relaxed about the rate at which we paid it back (“you can just pay the interest this month…hey, don’t worry about even paying the interest this month”) was arrested on his way to Brazil with most of the bank’s money. The FDIC took over the bank and was not at all relaxed about our payment schedule. They wanted full payment, on time, thank you.
The second punch came from Vanderbilt Hospital, where we had run up large medical bills due to a couple of major mishaps, which, because of our “we don’t take welfare” stance, we had promised to pay in full, but had been unable to repay. The amount involved was enough that Vanderbilt was able to go to court and get a lien against our land, due to our “one for all and all for one” organization. Given the power point slide that begins this essay, I have to ask: were these hits to our financial viability a coordinated effort?
While the CIA’s use of U.S. banks for money laundering and other purposes is well known, I don’t know whether they were behind any of the events at our local bank, from the willingness to lend us large sums of money (to draw us in?) to the bank president’s attempt to abscond with the funds, and I don’t know why Vanderbilt decided that this was the time to put the screws to The Farm on money we had owed them for years. I don’t have the time, talent, or energy to research these questions, but the way these two blows (which fit so neatly into the JTRIG slide at the beginning of this essay) have been de-emphasized in the Farm community’s perception of itself certainly fits the tactics outlined in another slide from JTRIG’s playbook:
Notice especially the “Attention,” “Sensemaking,” and “Affect” lines. (“Cialdini” refers to a psychologist who specializes in understanding persuasion.) Those who are aware of The Farm’s history are welcome to interpret this to their best ability; for me to go into all its implications would involve writing a book. I hope to do that, but not right here, right now!
I will address one other issue: the assertion that another factor in the community’s demise was its inability to meet the material needs of its members. The first “gambit” under “Sensemaking” is, “Exploit prior beliefs.” As Stephen was fond of saying, we all came from “the land of hot and cold running orange juice,” and had gathered out in the woods to change ourselves and change the world. My understanding was that, as revolutionaries, we should expect to put up with a certain amount of privation for a while in order to make the revolution we wanted. Look at China, I told my friends. We haven’t had to endure anything like “The Long March.”
Were these rising expectations merely the result of our own weak will? Were they generated by the community’s increasing addiction to network television, which has been widely credited with raising the hopes and expectations of third world people all over the planet? Or were there infiltrators posing as community members who worked to encourage whatever discontent they found? (“Create cognitive stress. Create physiological stress. Create affective stress….exploit shared affect.”) Or some combination of all these? The slide below illustrates that infiltration is definitely an NSA tactic:
Next, I want to remind my readers of the context in which The Farm operated in the 1970’s. We were out to make a non-violent, spiritual revolution. Stephen called us “The flagship of the counterculture.” He excoriated the laid-back ethos of the 70’s, saying “This is the first generation that rose up, ended a foreign war, toppled the country’s government (Watergate) and then wandered off to drink beer and play frisbee.”
Our intention as a community was to be a model that people all over the world could adopt and adapt, a model that featured voluntary simplicity, sharing, self-awareness , good interpersonal communication skills, and strong local community organization and interdependence. No money was exchanged for services or goods within the community. We framed it in terms of the New Testament Book of Acts, “And all that believed held all things in common, and parted to each as he had need,” which was paraphrased by Karl Marx as “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Does it get more radical than that?
We were actively working with Greenpeace, the American Indian Movement, and the anti-nuclear power/peace movement. The radio operator on Greenpeace’s “Rainbow Warrior” was a Farm member. In 1978, The Farm provided material support for, and Farm community members participated, in “The Longest Walk,” a 5-month long demonstration/walk across America that was organized by AIM. The Farm Band, which renamed itself “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” played for AIM powwows and peace/clean energy demonstrations, including a rally of 65,000 people in Washington, D.C. in 1979. Did the government interfere with any of these groups?
One crew member died in the explosion. Knowing what we know now, it’s hard to believe that U.S. intelligence services weren’t aware of this well in advance. Oh, by the way, not all of those implicated when the plot was exposed were ever arrested and tried, and those who were did not do serious time, even though they had committed murder. Contrast that with the sentence of Earth Liberation Front activist Jeff Luers, who is serving 22 years for burning 3 SUVs at a Chevrolet dealership.
AIM was heavily infiltrated by the government, which succeeded in sowing enough distrust to cause the group to split into two factions in the early 1990’s. Dozens of AIM members have died under suspicious circumstances that law enforcement officials have failed to investigate.
After the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation was made public by protestors who burglarized an FBI office, Idaho Senator Frank Church attempted to stop the government from spying on and disrupting nuclear and anti-war organizations, but this merely caused the agencies to be more secretive about their activities. In the 1980s, the US government continued to do whatever it could to covertly break up citizen groups calling for alternatives to nuclear power and justice in El Salvador and Chile.
When San Jose Mercury reporter Gary Webb published his investigation of the cocaine-Contra connection–the fact that, with CIA help, the Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries were financing their assault on the Sandinistas by smuggling cocaine into the U.S., the country’s major newspapers seemed to act in concert to destroy Webb’s reputation, and he ultimately committed suicide. When the Christic Institute attempted to bring a RICO suit against the government over its support of the Contras, a judge who did not disclose that he was also a legal counsel for the CIA dismissed their suit and ordered them to pay a million dollars to the government “to recompense them for their legal fees,” effectively putting Christic Institute into bankruptcy. Their attempt to appeal the case was derailed when a liberal judge who would have likely overturned the CIA judge’s decision was assassinated, and their doom sealed when the IRS stripped them of their non-profit status, claiming their lawsuit was “politically motivated.”
Whistleblower Karen Silkwood was killed while on her way to a meeting with people to whom she had promised to deliver Kerr-McGee corporate files showing that her employer was handling nuclear material irresponsibly. The files were apparently removed from her car after it was intentionally forced off the road by another vehicle, causing her death. The questions of who forced her car off the road, and what happened to the files she intended to deliver, have never been answered.
Documents uncovered long after the fact reveal that the U.S. government knew that the Chilean dictatorship, which had come to power with U.S. help and encouragement, was planning to murder Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier, wilfully allowed his murderers into the U.S., and declined to either tell Chilean dictator Pinochet not to do it or warn Letelier. Thanks, Henry Kissinger!
One of The Farm’s assaults on the U.S. government was a lawsuit, Honicker vs. Hendrie, a case in which Farm-supported lawyers argued, on behalf of a non-Farm plaintiff, that, since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s own figures showed that a certain number of random U.S. citizens would die as a result of the use of nuclear power, all nuclear power plants should be shut down, since it is quite unconstitutional for the government to kill innocent U.S. citizens. We lost that case, which, I suppose, set a legal precedent for the Constitutionality of drone strikes, but what is relevant to what I am discussing here is that, when our lawyers were in Washington, about to appear before the Supreme Court, somebody broke into their car and stole nothing but their briefcase, full of relevant legal documents. Somebody had their eye on us, it seems!
All this is intended to point out that our government, and its surveillance agencies, play hardball. Every advocacy group that The Farm was allied with was infiltrated and disrupted by the government. Why wouldn’t they have done the same to us? As author and former Wall Street Journal editor Bryan Burrough said in a recent interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air”:
I have to say my working theory about all these things – keep in mind I’m typically brought in when something goes wrong – has always been against conspiracy theories and in favor of human fallibility.
I must say that what Snowden has put out there suggests that I need to be a little bit more aware of the conspiracy theories because, in this case, many, many things that were said that the NSA could do, which sound like a conspiracy theory – you know, eavesdropping on Angela Merkel or the Indonesian prime minister’s mistress – I might have scoffed at.
And we now know are not only capable of being done but have been done. And the only thing that surprises me now is when I’m told that there’s something the NSA can’t do. Because when you’re in the middle of reporting and researching one of these stories, you just – the sense of the NSA’s capabilities just – they mushroom.
And you just come to believe that they can do almost anything.
(As examples of what “almost anything” means today, check out this story, in which a woman engaging in peaceful protest was groped from behind by a plain-clothes policeman and then convicted of assaulting him, a felony that carries a seven-year sentence, because she reflexively elbowed him, and this one, which details the tribulations the government has visited on an American citizen and his family because he declined to spy on his fellow Muslims.)
That leads to the final question: why does it matter any more, thirty years after the fact?
There are two parts to my answer. The first is that the way the communal experiment on The Farm ended foreshadowed what happened to Soviet bloc countries at the time of the fall of Communism, as well as the kind of “austerity programs” the IMF imposes. The role of the government changed: The Farm’s/Communist countries’ governments had been responsible for making sure everybody was fed, clothed, housed, medically cared for, and employed, but, under the new regime, government’s role was much more limited: collect taxes and use them for basic community projects such as roads and security.
Another aspect of this is what Naomi Klein calls “The Shock Doctrine”: the intentional dismemberment of a society in order to privatize its communal assets. In The Farm’s case, all the businesses that had formerly contributed to the community treasury, such as the Book Publishing Company, the construction crew, and a radiation monitor manufacturing unit, were, essentially, privatized, even if, on paper, they were still owned by the community. Most of these business have prospered, allowing their employees to remain in their homes on the former commune and live at a typical American material standard. Those who were involved in public service in the community were no longer financial supported for their service, and, since jobs in the area around The Farm were low-paying and hard to come by, had to relocate to support themselves and their families. This kind of destruction of public sector/public benefit jobs is typical of IMF austerity programs.
Thus, the only people who were able to remain on the land were those who benefited from privatization, which has contributed to the rationalization that The Farm’s communal experiment failed because it was inherently flawed, and that “the new Farm” is an improvement on the old one. We need to ask ourselves: is this really the case? Is low-income,close, long-term communal living really beyond the psycho-spiritual capabilities of even a willing group of volunteers? If that is really the case, the rest of this century is going to be increasingly, perhaps impossibly, difficult. Does having more space and more stuff to put in our space automatically make us better off? Or are the best things in life not things?
The second is that, privatized, The Farm was no longer able to function as a major player in the new paradigm movement, because it was no longer an example of the new paradigm. “The flagship of the counterculture” had sunk, or been sunk, just as surely as The Rainbow Warrior. Ironically, the community began to “drank beer and play Frisbee.” (“The old Farm” had barred alcohol; “the new Farm” has seen individuals become alcoholics: and, on land where we once grew crops, a “Frisbee golf course” has been laid out.) We were not there to oppose the reactionary counter-revolution that swept the country, and the world, in the 80’s, with Ronald Reagan riding high and Margaret Thatcher proclaiming “There is no alternative.” The Farm, as a non-violent, spiritual, communal seed crystal for social change, had been destroyed, its members dispersed and disempowered. Individuals might maintain their idealism, get together in smaller groups, and do what they could, but the big tent that The Farm had been was no longer available as a tool and a shining example of the possible. If it was, in fact, destroyed by our government, this is a reason for all of us who shared that vision to double down in our efforts to institute the kind of open, trusting, caring society that The Farm embodied.
Thinking about the demise of “the old Farm” in these terms can have an unhealthy effect on one’s level of paranoia, since, if there were infiltrators, they are very unlikely to admit it, even this long after the fact. I start wondering: were this or that person’s poor decisions or loud-mouthed brashness innocent expressions, or was s/he an agent provocateur? Or were their actions/speech encouraged by someone who was? And isn’t this distrust of my fellow communards just what the government might have been trying to generate? To entertain these questions and maintain one’s sanity, it is important to cultivate the ability to live with a high degree of uncertainty, and a good sense of humor. Maybe there were no undercover agitators on The Farm. Maybe the pincers movement of Vanderbilt Hospital and the FDIC was pure coincidence. But, given the government’s track record, it’s hard to believe we weren’t messed with at some level.
This brings us back to Albert Bates’ FOIA suit. What the makers of American Commune did not put in the film was that Bates discovered that, due to our involvement in appropriate tech and the empowerment of Guatemalan villagers, the Reagan administration had labelled us, as well as groups like CISPES (the Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) as “domestic terrorist organizations,” and FEMA had made plans to detain all known members of such organizations in the event that the US became involved in an out-front shooting war in Central America. That never happened, but, considering what we now know about government harassment of CISPES, we can be assured that it had The Farm firmly in its sights. It is also worth noting that FOIA requests cannot be made of the National Security Agency. We simply don’t know what we don’t know, but what we do know makes it all the more likely that the parallels between the NSA infiltration manuals that Edward Snowden released and what happened on, and to, The Farm are not mere coincidence.
As our world becomes dirtier, more crowded, more dangerous, and more precarious, it is ever more obvious to me that The Farm, and the hippie movement in general, was a potentially viable attempt to create a society that addresses all the problems that threaten to undo us in the 21st century. This is not to say that The Farm was some kind of utopia; it was not. It was very much a work in progress. Stephen, despite his aspirations and ours, was, while wise and visionary, not an omniscient, perfect guru. The debate within the Farm over whether to take care of the existing community first, or go out and raise hell and recruit more people, was a legitimate one, with a lot of valid arguments both ways. If the outside forces of Vanderbilt Hospital and the FDIC had not imposed austerity on the community, we might have had the time and energy to resolve these challenges in a way that left us strong and communal. Did the financial straight jacket these two institutions put us in “just happen,” or was it orchestrated? All of our allies were hacked and whacked by undercover government operatives. Did we really shoot ourselves in the foot, or is that just what we’re supposed to believe?
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and we, the people of the world, chose, or have been manipulated to choose, the ecocidal high road of materialism, greed, growth, and wealth for the few over the sustainable low road of community, simplicity, spiritual values, and sharing. I can only pray that it is not too late for us to find a way to return to the right path.
music: Richard and Linda Thompson, “Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed?”
James McMurtry, “The Governor”
Bruce Cockburn, “Call It Democracy” (The first link is to Cockburn’s video for the song from about 30 years ago; second is for a video with scenes from Greece last year; the situation remains the same.)
Bob Dylan, “I Dreamed I saw St. Augustine” (There’s no video of Dylan’s original version, but I liked the “wandering through the wilderness of this world” video of the first cover, and the second is by Joan Baez. There are several recent versions of Dylan singing it, but I like these versions because you can understand the words even if you don’t know them already!)
The Melodians–“Rivers of Babylon”
(slightly edited 8-19-14, 7-17-15)