"Karen Sullivan" in Minnesota: Piecing Together a Police Agent

We have been covering reports on a police agent who had infiltrated antiwar and socialist circles in Minnesota, joining the organization Freedom Road Socialist Organization (Fight back). The people targeted by this infiltrator have been piecing together what they knew of "Karen Sullivan" -- to make sense of this, and to reconstruct the deception.

The following appeared in the City Pages blog. Thanks to Brad Sigal for pointing this out to us.

* * * * * * * *

Prosecutors investigating more than a dozen Minnesota anti-war activists recently confirmed that the charges rely on an undercover agent who spent two and a half years infiltrating their organization.

This is how the woman who called herself Karen Sullivan insinuated herself into the lives of local protesters, and how she mysteriously vanished just before FBI agents raided their homes.

In early 2008, the members of Minneapolis's Anti-War Committee were starting to plan their licensed protests against the upcoming Republican National Convention. There were a lot of new faces getting involved at the time, and the Committee was holding meetings for new members.

Sometime in winter or early spring, Karen Sullivan came to her first meeting.

"She came with her girlfriend, whose name was Joy," recalls Meredith Aby, one of the founders of the Anti-War Committee. "We never saw Joy again. I don't know what happened to her."

But Sullivan came back, to meeting after meeting. A woman in her early 40s with short, sandy hair and a Boston accent, Sullivan was quiet, and kept to herself for the most part. But she volunteered when tasks were handed out at the meetings, and always followed through.

"We were pretty excited that here was this person who seemed pretty reliable," Aby says.

It took a few months after Sullivan first started showing up before Aby really got to know her at all. The two went on a flyering run together, driving around to coffee shops to put the group's literature up on bulletin boards. They got into a conversation, asking about each others' lives.

"That was the first time we heard this story about her horribly tragic youth," Aby says.

The story Sullivan told Aby was the same she would eventually tell, with varying degrees of detail, to several members of the group with whom she became closest. In each case, it wasn't some polished biography. It came in dribs and drabs, a vague and tantalizing patchwork. "The way she told it, she seemed like a real person with an actual backstory," Aby say.

Sullivan said she had grown up in Boston, but left home at an early age because her family couldn't deal with her being gay. She was homeless for a while, drifting over to the Twin Cities. She gave the impression that she might have been the victim of violence or abuse during this time.

Eventually, Sullivan said, she joined the armed forces to put a roof over her head and get her life in order. But she said she was kicked out for violating the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" provision.

After that, Sullivan became more politically aware, spending time in Northern Ireland working for the Irish Republican Army, she claimed.

Somewhere along the way, she and a woman named Lee, who lived in Minnetonka and had an art-framing store, conceived a daughter through in-vitro fertilization. But Lee was jealous, and didn't like Sullivan's politics. The relationship soured.

After more restless moving around, Sullivan had finally returned to Minnesota to be close to her daughter, Taylor, who was enrolled in seventh grade at Hopkins Jr. High.

Sullivan was working for a friend as a property inspector, and though her existence seemed tenuous, she drove an expensive black SUV that she said her boss let her use.

"I thought, 'Wow, your boss is cool,'" Plotz remembered. "I hadn't thought that would be part of a gig like what she was doing."

After the Republican National Convention, many of the short-term enthusiasts in the movement faded away, but Karen stayed on, becoming one of the most regular attendees of the group's meetings. Sullivan was becoming indispensable, and at the same time, she was expanding her connections beyond the Anti-War Committee. She volunteered to represent the group at various other coalitions, and attended the meetings of other activist groups.

Mick Kelly, whose home would later be one of those raided by the FBI, met Sullivan through his work on the Minnesota Coalition for the People's Bailout, fighting for a moratorium on home foreclosures. Then he started seeing her everywhere.

"She was definitely around," Kelly says. "She was always talking with a lot of people."

Dan Dimaggio met her when she started attending meetings of the Iraq Peace Action Committee.

"She was at every frickin' demonstration, she went all in," Dimaggio says. "It can be really exciting to find somebody like that, somebody who's a bit older, who seems like a working-class person. A lot of times the meetings are dominated by the same old faces."

In November of 2008, Sullivan and other members of the group piled into a van for a road trip down to Columbus, Georgia, for the annual protest against the School of the Americas at Fort Benning. Aby, who has traveled several times to Colombia in support of trade unionists there, was giving a talk.

After the talk, she was approached by a Colombian woman who introduced herself as Daniela Cardenas, who thanked her for speaking. A few minutes later, Cardenas was back again, this time with Sullivan. They said they had struck up a conversation in the bathroom.

"I remember thinking Daniela was really weird," says Plotz, who was also on the trip. "She was talking really fast, and something just seemed off with her personality. But it seemed like she was really flirting with Karen."

Cardenas gave Sullivan her number that night, leading to lots of teasing from the others. The two didn't reconnect that trip, but a few weeks later, Sullivan admitted that they had been really hitting it off over email, and she was planning to visit her home in Miami. Soon Cardenas was making regular trips to Minneapolis, her visits often coinciding with the Anti-War Committee's major demonstrations.

Aby found the new romance baffling. For one thing, Sullivan had long repeated that she didn't want any long-term relationship.

"But also, I remember thinking there wasn't any sexual tension at all. I didn't even think Daniela was a lesbian. But what can you say? You can't say, 'She's an 8, you're a 4, this doesn't make sense.'"

The relationship makes more sense now: Prosecutors recently confirmed that Cardenas, like Sullivan, was an undercover federal agent sent to spy on the activists.

In March 2009, Aby gave birth to a baby girl. Shortly afterward, Karen came by to visit, bringing a gift.

"It was a stuffed animal, literally the ugliest stuffed animal I've ever seen," Aby says. "But I kept it because I thought it was super sweet that someone would bring her something in the first week of her life."

As Aby became more occupied by motherhood, Sullivan offered to pick up the slack in keeping the committee running. Soon she was helping to keep the group's financial books.

At the same time, Sullivan was showing a new interest in the Palestinian cause. She joined a group in opposition to the war in Gaza, and she asked to join a delegation being planned to visit a Palestinian women's group. She and Plotz were selected to represent the Anti-War Committee on the trip, along with another member, Sarah Martin.

"Leading up to the trip, Karen was especially anxious that we all get our stories straight," Plotz remembers.

Israeli immigration officials take a dim view of activists visiting the Palestinian territories, so the group planned to identify themselves as members of a church group visiting holy sites.

But now Plotz thinks that Sullivan knew all along what would happen when they landed at Tel Aviv Airport. Israeli immigrations officials somehow knew they were coming. The three were stopped, and told they wouldn't be let in the country. They were to get on the next plane home. Plotz and Martin refused, and the Israeli authorities put them in a detention center. Sullivan, to their surprise, wouldn't join them. She told them she had to think about her daughter, and couldn't get mixed up in something so serious.

"I was surprised, but it kind of made sense," Plotz says. "As she was getting ready to leave us, I gave her a hug. I was really concerned that she not feel bad about leaving us there. I thought that moment was a real bonding experience for us."

Plotz and Martin were eventually deported, but they didn't see much of Sullivan for a while. She was traveling a lot--her former partner's mother was in the hospital, she said. Also she was frequently traveling to Chicago, where she said her boss had recently acquired a similar business.

In February 2010, Sullivan left town again, telling friends in the group that her estranged father had died. When she returned, she was emotional and erratic. She often came over to Aby's house in tears. On these occasions, Aby says, Sullivan would frequently shift the conversation to politics, making extreme statements that Aby didn't know how to respond to.

"I didn't understand at the time that she was a provocateur," Aby says. "When people are first realizing that the U.S. is involved in a lot of nasty stuff in foreign countries, they can get really radicalized. I thought that was what was going on with her."

But even as she became more emotional and unpredictable, Sullivan remained a good friend. In March she and Cardenas stopped by Aby's apartment to bring her one-year-old daughter another set of birthday presents: Cardenas gave a stuffed bear; Sullivan gave a toy cell-phone.

"It's ironic, because I know now from my subpoena that they were tapping my cell phone the whole time," Aby says. "Of course I've since thrown all those things away."

That spring, Sullivan started planning a trip to Colombia. She and Cardenas were going to go on a personal trip to visit Cardenas's relatives. Sullivan began pressuring Aby to put her in touch with all the Colombian trade unionists she knew.

"That was really strange," Aby said. "This was a personal trip they were taking, not a political one. The people I know there are very busy, doing work that's often life-and-death. I wasn't going to ask them to meet a friend on vacation."

To Sullivan's frustration, Aby refused to introduce her to connections in Colombia. Still, planning for the trip went forward, and in September, Sullivan left the Twin Cities. It was the last any of her friends for the past two and a half years would see of her.

Sullivan was due to return on Wednesday, September 22, but didn't appear. Then, early on the morning of Friday the 24th, FBI agents raided five homes belonging to Minneapolis activists, including Aby, Jess Sundin, and Mick Kelly. Other activists, including Plotz, were handed grand jury subpoenas a few days later.

In the aftermath of the raids, everyone who had ever been part of the Anti-War Committee was calling and emailing, asking if everything was all right, offering their support. Sullivan wasn't heard from at all.

When the committee learned that FBI agents had entered their offices at the University Tech building using a key, they drew the obvious conclusion: As hard as it was to believe, Sullivan had been an undercover informant all along. They agreed not to make any more efforts to contact her, and she was never heard from again.

Well, almost never. Plotz agreed with her friends that no one should have any substantial communication with Sullivan, but she was also curious. What if it wasn't really true?

"If someone ever accused me of being an infiltrator, and all my friends were shutting me out, that would be terrible," Plotz says. "I wanted to make sure that we weren't putting someone undeserving in that situation."

So without telling her friends, Plotz sent a text message to the woman she had known as Karen Sullivan. What follows is their exchange:

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  • Guest - k

    I must say, lady looks like a cop, especially with the haircut. http://mikeely.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/karensullivandinner.jpg Obviously looks like she doesn't really fit in and has more conservative looks as she also has social obligations in her other life. It's really weird that people don't note red flags coming up on stuff like this, especially if the person is no longer just a run-of-the-mill member and being suspicious about them won't scare away others like them.

    On the other hand I suspect that people in PSL thought I was a cop as looked pretty mainstream and didn't have the stereotypical radical views that they were used to.

  • Guest - saoirse

    she looks like a cop? I think this says more about the left's expectations of what a revolutionary should look like.

  • Guest - k

    What, not like a cop? Or are all cops pug-faced fat white guys, with cowboy hats and sunburn optional?

    People who work for police/security forces just have very specific characteristics that you can notice in them, as well as a mentality considerably different from most people's. Think about it: what would motivate a person to infiltrate a communist group? The act implies strongly opposing the idea, and at the same time accepting it without having it seem fake which implies condescension and a lot of other emotions inconsistent with how she is seen by people in the group. At the same time it's well-rewarded and a person's well-kept physical appearance is testament to that, especially if she allegedly was living on the street and even abused.

  • Guest - Seamus

    This expose reminds me of a discussion some time ago re Sexuality , Security etc , The jist of at least some of the posts were than a active Heteosexual male were the ones most likely to be Police Informers than a Woman, especially a Gay woman or a Black or Latina . I and others differed writing that our enemies while vicious aren't stupid and knowing the Left's tendency towards ''Identify politics ''would make many activists far more relunctant to challenge a suspicious Gay or Non White woman than they would a straight white guy , they would then try to exploit that .
    So yes You have the Brit Cops like Kennedy but you also have a loyal lesbian Cop like Sullivan .
    Very Unfortunely I feel vindicated .

  • Guest - chicanofuturet

    I would imagine that security measures would best be mainly handled by the most experienced and elder members of the movement.
    Give newbies the "sniff" test..
    yes,they do seem "weird" in certain ways..
    I remember once at a big demo some idiotic undercover cops tried to infiltrate the demo and the fools were wearing some ridiculous looking plaid bermuda shorts while wearing polyester socks and black patent leather shoes..they had on some gaudy cheap looking wigs wearing black sunglasses..
    They were sniffed out pretty quickly,were chased out of the demo very hurriedly and unceremoniously.

    there is always something that will give a cop away..sooner or later they will show their true colors..you just have to flush them out test them using the "sniff" test..

    Get the most suspicious borderline paranoid in your organization,pair them up with an old timer and you'll catch the dirty rats..
    put out the cheese set the trap.."snap"..there ya go..

  • Guest - cigar guy

    Claiming to have "helped the IRA" would have been a red flag for me. You don't just 'help the IRA'. I've been involved with Irish republicanism/Irish Northern Aid movement for years. Even though INA is a mass org., its ties to SF make it vulnerable to infiltrators attempting to break in and develop ties beyond INA. Claims of 'helping the IRA' should have been challenged and investigated. Just because Ireland is far away, and 'helping the IRA' might sound cool to people, is this enough to accept on the face of it? Those who are really doing the work don't brag about it to get acceptance. And those who accept such claims without verification are doing sloppy work.

  • Guest - Nelson H.

    Cigar Guy, before you go accusing good folks under intense attack from the state of "doing sloppy work" let's seek truth from facts for a second.

    You're basing the entire characterization of "sloppy working" on a single quote from a city's weekly...

    After two plus years of deep infiltration and despite clear attempts at entrapment and provocation not a single person is, as yet, in jail...

    So how about you take your own advice (and namely, STFU).

    <strong>[moderator note:</strong> please refrain from snark or telling others to "stfu." This only brings down the level of engagement on the site.]

  • Guest - Pete M

    It appears that not much has changed since the infiltration of Peace Groups in the '60s. It may be worse now because the groups are small and need new recruits so they trust newcomers too easily.

    The effect of this type of betrayal is to make activists less trusting and more paranoid which is part of the government plain.

    Rigorous screening may push some good people away but it is mandatory if activist groups are to survive.

  • Guest - EnCee

    This really says more about the lengths to which the Federal Government will go to squash all forms of resistance and dissent.

    Any criticism should really be leveled at the FBI and their goons, not these activists. They did nothing illegal. They had nothing to hide. The Feds were obviously fishing for information and a way to set these people up. If they had any solid evidence they would have pressed charges already. That's why they're going forward with this full court press of charging up to 24 activists. They want them to talk so they can use whatever they use against them or their comrades.

    I think the government's actions also have to be looked at for what they really are illegal and immoral. Yes, maybe under this Capitalist system they get to make the rules and "technically" it's not illegal for the Feds to spy. But, for any honest person that has a respect for basic rights such as freedom of assembly and freedom of association this has to be looked at as a fundamental violation of those rights. If anything, the Feds are trying to enshrine into law the very idea of guilt by association with these spurious charges and investigation. Again, it's how the Ruling Class likes to run things or at least have decided they want things run ever since the excuse of 9/11 opened that door.

    I can tell you this, though. If FRSO was attacked then a whole bunch of other organizations also have been too. They probably just don't know it or have not advertised it. Getting on FRSO's case for "being to lax" is taking away the wrong lesson from this, because chances are other organizations have been infiltrated. If anything, this attack against them is just the tip of the iceberg before the Feds go after more juicy targets. If they are allowed to win against FRSO it will set a dangerous precedent for a host of organizations who do solidarity and peace work. You want another target or an idea of who they are going after next? Go check the State Department's list of foreign groups it considers "terrorist" organizations. Then trace that list back to all the types of organizations that might possibly do solidarity or advocacy work with those orgs and then you'll have an idea of who else is up for consideration.

  • Guest - chicanofuturet

    Perhaps the nature of an organizations internal political structure will determine it's level of vulnerability to penetration by spies and cops.

    I would venture to assume that cop infiltration into a highly centralized disciplined Leninist communist party organization would not have been so easily accomplished by police scum bags such as Sullivan and Cardenas.

    VI Lenin always seems to come back and haunt us reaffirming the correctness of his ideas over and over again in so many ways even though modern communists have adopted the tendency to deny,doubt or ignore the correctness of his vision and wisdom.
    It is my opinion that to deny Leninism is ultimately to invite failure and disaster.

    This latest episode of successful police infiltration on mass organizations such as FRSO just gives more credibility to the correctness of Lenin's concept of a highly disciplined centralized vanguard party.

  • Guest - Nelson H

    @moderator point taken cut that last senteance of the post if you would please.

  • Guest - Seamus

    There are some problems with even ''rigorous screening ''. Ironically the Police and Feds probably would anticipate that and thus give their agents a ''legend '' (carefully constructed phony background ) that would stand on to scrunity .
    Whereas many honest activists might not be able to answer some questions . '' Who were your immediate supervisors when you worked at AK Manufacturing in 1992 ? '' ('' Bob, Gavin , No was it Gilbert ? Last names ? Not a clue '' ) '' Describe in detail the Anti-WTO Conf. you say you attended in 2001 . Who were the keynote speakers at the final plenary ? '' (''I don't know . Noam Chomsky, Bob Avakian and Sunburst Wall flower maybe ? '' ) '' Name every major romantic relationship you have ever been in ? '' ('' None of your Fucking business ! '' ) etc.
    You get my drift . Also many genuine activists might not want to disclose jail time out of embarassment (Say a County jail sentence for Meth, Heroin or possesion of some other drug that unlike grass is genuinely harmful and looked down upon in progressive circles ) or maybe a relationship or marriage that ended badly and/or in a ugly dispute .
    There's also the consideration that especially veteran activists might be leary to reveal all major details of their life when , of course , their questioners wouldn't recipocate . They might be concerned about their own security .
    For example speaking of the IRA (And i strongly agree that one doesn't simply just ''work '' with the IRA ! ) a few years ago their Internal security chief was revealed to have been a informer for British Intel. And using that role He falsely accused and had executed a number of genuine IRA fighters !
    I think the main security is for organizations whether broad coalitions or Socialist groups to conduct their affairs in ways that would greatly minimalize any damage informers could do.(whether actual cops or FBI or as MIke E. said More likely formerly real activists who were ''turned '' for some reason )
    I certainly don't reject common sense screening . But i just wanted to point out such measures aren't foolproof .

  • Guest - amy roundhouse

    Was Sullivan a cop or an informant?

    Informants can come from within, so the idea that you could tell by looking at them is I think a bit flimsy. It could be someone who was involved for the right reasons who had vulnerabilities (addictions, family, past convictions, etc.) that the state exploited.

    Also, what does a cop look like? There's a lot of fascist punks, just like there's a lot of anarcho-punks. You can't tell by looking.

    For me, the talk of IRA involvement would have been a flag. I go by the rule that if you were involved, you wouldn't talk about it, and if you do, you aren't.

  • Guest - Dave

    Isn't this where it falls apart? You don't want to be tough with people, ask them for documents because that is what <i>they</i> do.

    Don't be passive about it and try to nicely tease out their story and hope that some old timers can fish them out - ask for documents. Bank records, tax returns, old photos. Run a cheap background check like employers do. Call their old employers. Just be honest with the member. Say, "Look, we don't like to do it, but because of what happened recently, we feel like this is necessary." If they feel it is too much, that is an actual red flag - not some phoney bunch of paranoia concocted from trying to read into their potentially well rehearsed statements. If they don't understand the gravity of the situation and why it is important for there to be some give and take, then are they really going to do what is needed anyway?

    Why would you trust them to deal with the group's sensitive information if they don't feel comfortable having the group deal with their's.

    As things get tougher, there may not be a choice.

  • Guest - Jay Rothermel

    Leninism is no protection against infiltration. My old party the US SWP at one point had about a quarter of its membership being informers, as we later found out when we sued to government in the 70s over the infiltration. Comrades joked that the CPUSA during the McCarthy period was only sustained by the dues of infiltrators, the only ones not witch-hunted out of job.

    We have to accept people who come forward to volunteer. We need to put them to work and judge them by their ACTIONS, not by giving them the third degree. We have too much to do for that anyway. The FBI would love us to spend our time interviewing each other.

    Our movement got two good years of work and financial support out of this cop, and because the people she was trying to entrap were honest and there was 100% transparency on THEIR [OUR] part, all the provocations and violence-baiting came to nothing.

  • Guest - Gregory A Butler

    I've always been very uncomfortable with the amount of agent paranoia on the left. In the two decades I spent as an activist,(during which time I occasionally did "security", among other tasks) I've seen agent fear used as an excuse to squash internal debate, used as a justification for making groups clubby, clannish and insular and used as a catch all excuse for every failure and reverse. Also, agent fear has often been used as an excuse to shut down even the most theoretical discussions of armed struggle.

    Here's my take on it.

    If your attempts at social change are at all effective, the police and/or the feds will watch you.

    There is absolutely nothing you can do about that, and most of the standard left countermeasures just make us look like weird paranoid cultists to the average mainstream working class person (and can and will be used as evidence of guilt in the rulers courts of law)

    If you are a tiny insular sect, trembling in fear of the FBI they've already won even if they've never even used Cooperating Individual or undercover officer.

    On the other hand if you go full steam ahead and build a mass movement of millions, no matter how many humint assets they have in your group, they won't be able to stop you (just ask General Ben Ali about that - he had the largest secret police in African 130,000 sworn agents strong and they still couldn't stop the revolution!)

    So let's stop being paranoid about agents and concentrate on building the biggest strongest movement we can!

    Oh yeah as far as "looking like cops" you'd be surprised at how good they can be at adopting leftist appearnce and demeanor - the person you think "looks like a cop" probably isn't

  • Guest - Green Red

    More than anything i commend FRSOFB comrade who did not reveal names in Colombia. Beside good or bad or whatever anybody wants to label FARC and ELN in Colombia, the union workers and activists are in severe hazardous living style.

    Lilany Obando is for example an special case that deserves to be supported by Kasama friends is a good example.

    http://www.freeliliany.net/

    is one of the means to support her. Her story was she was going around the world and
    talked about labor of Colombia's condition and after attacking the commandante Reyes camp in Ecuador and, his computer hard drive missing few days then it came back allegedly relating this fighting woman with the FARC based on e mails that did not even substantiate a thing since international police did not find e mails as real and gathered Colombian regime has fabricated it to use the opportunity.

    Please support her.

  • Guest - saoirse

    K First off I am not trying to start an argument over nothing when pointing to specifics about what makes Karen Sullivan look like a cop you suggest (a) her haircut (b) she doesn’t really fit in and has more conservative looks and (c) also has social obligations in her other life.

    All these points raise pretty big red flags for me as Karen Sullivan LOOKS like a completely average person to me. There is nothing about her hair or physical appearance that strikes me as noteworthy. She looks like some of my comrades, coworkers, friends, neighbors and women I've dated. Hindsight is 20-20 and perhaps there are collectively some red flags that should have been observed closer but that doesn't strike me as your point?

    As for talk of the IRA. I think within US based republican circles and activists over the past 3-4 decades there have been varying degrees of security culture. Simply talking about the RA or doing work with NORAID would not strike me as a red flag.

  • Guest - k

    Well that's the thing, someone who lived on the streets, was abused, "worked with the IRA," etc. really isn't an 'average person' and would have A LOT of baggage to carry with that, emotional and physical. On the other hand she has characteristics that she shares with agents - her outward appearance and her behavior, the way she carries herself. I realize that I've never met the lady but nothing in the article suggests that they were anything but suspicious. The characteristics of her being an agent or cop predominate over the characteristics she gave as her back story.

  • Guest - David_D

    I think it's incorrect to go to into specific criticisms or prescriptions relating to this case. I certainly think this article conveys little...

    Informers and agents shouldn't be too much of a problem - I even imagine that they could perform much useful work if the principle of "need to know" is employed and everyone is put to work performing useful tasks.

    If I was performing security tasks, I would be far more interested in where someone went to grade school than in what allegedly motivated them to become active politically. Their past should be, at least to a good extent, verifiable. It should be comparatively easy to filter out all but "deep cover" agents actually in the pay of federal intelligence agencies. Of course, this would also filter out many non-agents as well, who simply are averse to such organizational principles.

  • Guest - David_D

    Also, yes, let's get away from the lifestylism and sense that a leftist "should" look a certain way. That woman doesn't "look like a cop," she looks like a "regular person." Anyone who looks "regular" looks like they COULD be a cop, but that doesn't mean that ARE. Is there a grooming/fashion standard by which leftists should make themselves look like they could not possibly be cops? If so, I would think many fail this.