Moral Low Ground


FBI Admits to Spying on Burning Man Festival

Burning Man 2014 (Photo: Brett Wilkins)

Burning Man 2014 (Photo: Brett Wilkins)

Newly-released documents reveal the Federal Bureau of Investigation spied on Burning Man, the weeklong art and music festival in the northern Nevada desert.

Responding to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by California-based journalist Inkoo Kang, the FBI released heavily redacted internal memos, first published on Muckrock, one of which states that the bureau was working with local authorities to “aid in the prevention of terrorist activities and intelligence collection” at Burning Man in 2010.

The FBI cited the “ongoing war on terrorism and potential for additional acts of terrorism” as justification for the operation. Another memo revealed that the FBI was contacted by a security company hired by Burning Man organizers to conduct a threat assessment. The bureau said it had “no intelligence indicating any outside threats, domestic or international” and concluded that the biggest threats during the event were “crowd control issues and use of illegal drugs by participants.”

Yet another memo lists the operation’s two “accomplishments”—one is redacted, the other states “local agency liaison established/utilized.”

It is not known whether the FBI has conducted any surveillance or other operations at Burning Man after 2010, or how many agents were involved in the operation that year. The bureau has not commented on the release of its documents.

The FBI memos were made public just as the 29th annual Burning Man was getting underway. The event began as a small countercultural gathering on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986 before relocating to the Black Rock Desert in 1990. The festival has grown in popularity with each passing year and now attracts nearly 70,000 people to the temporary community participants call Black Rock City, which is for a week the 6th most populous place in Nevada. Burners, as participants are called, strive to observe 10 core principles, including radical inclusion, decommodification (aside from the $390 ticket price and ice/coffee concessions, no money is exchanged during the event), radical self-expression, participation, radical self-reliance and ‘leave no trace.’

Burning Man is named for the giant wooden effigy, “The Man,” that is burned with much fanfare on the penultimate night of the festival. The event is the highlight of the year for many Burners and many first-time participants describe the festival as a life-changing experience.

According to Reuters, Burning Man adds an estimated $35 million to the local economy each year.

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