This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
Much is in dispute in the John Towery affair, the case of the Army employee who spied on local antiwar protesters under a false name.
Here’s a fact that is not in dispute, according to recently released records: The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department used a confidential informant to penetrate the ranks of South Sound antiwar protesters and provide detailed information about them – including their Social Security numbers, in some cases. That information was shared with other local law enforcement agencies, including the Tacoma Police Department.
Then things get a little fuzzy.
The informant was Towery, then an employee of Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s Force Protection Division, which provides support for local law enforcement and security operations. Towery’s Army supervisor was aware that he was spying on the protesters and had approved the informant relationship with Pierce County.
At first glance, Towery’s actions appear to have been illegal. The federal Posse Comitatus Act bars the military from engaging in law enforcement actions against U.S. citizens.
The law is in place for good reason: The vast machinery of the U.S. military should not be brought to bear against the citizenry. Otherwise, the military might become an instrument of political repression and police state control.
But according to Towery’s Army supervisor, a legal firewall of sorts was in place. See, Towery supposedly was spying on his own time – as a public-spirited volunteer recruited by Pierce County detective Christopher Adamson – and presumably on his own dime or Pierce County’s.
As long as Towery technically wasn’t spying as an Army employee, his actions might not have violated the letter of federal law – though it could be argued that they still violated the spirit of the law.
What isn’t clear is exactly when that legal firewall was constructed: before Towery started spying or after the protesters found out who he really was? And how high was it? If he was entirely on his own, and not using federal resources, how did he obtain protesters’ Social Security numbers?
Towery’s Army supervisor and the Pierce County detective who said he recruited Towery both claim that the firewall was in place before Towery started spying. We hope they have proof to back that up in a court of law, which is where this is likely headed. A civil lawsuit has already been filed, and criminal charges are also possible.
Local law enforcement has a stake in getting information about groups that have a history of committing crimes. An ordinary informant passing intelligence to Pierce County is one thing, but an Army employee going undercover – even as a “volunteer” – is disturbing.
Citizens shouldn’t have to worry that their military may use its vast resources against them. Given the known facts of this case, the Army bears the burden of proof that this didn’t happen in our back yard.