By William Fisher
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) improperly spied on American activists involved in First Amendment-protected activities and mischaracterized nonviolent civil disobedience as terrorism, which placed innocent activists on terrorist watch lists, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) charged today in response to a new report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General.
Inspector General Glenn A. Fine undertook his investigation after a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the ACLU uncovered evidence that “the FBI was chilling political association and improperly investigating peaceful advocacy groups,” the civil rights group said in a statement.
The Inspector General (IG) found the improper investigations were often opened based on “factually weak” or even “speculative” justifications, and were sometimes extended in duration without sufficient basis.
The IG said that the low standard for opening investigations under the 2002 Attorney General Guidelines, which required only the “possibility” of a federal crime, contributed to the problem.
“The FBI also made false and misleading statements to Congress and the American public to mute criticism over its unlawful spying activities, including a false claim that improper surveillance of a 2002 anti-war protest in Pittsburgh was related to a separate, validly approved FBI investigation,” the report alleges, adding that this incorrect information was repeated by FBI Director Robert Mueller before Congress and in communications between the Bureau and Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, who is chairman of the committee..
Michael German, ACLU Senior Policy Counsel and former FBI agent, told IPS, “Basically what the IG report shows is that the FBI spied on a lot of political activists for no good reason. This wasn't just a waste of time and resources that could have been better spent looking at real criminals and terrorists, it had real consequences for the victims, getting them placed in terrorism databases and watchlists that led to more spying and travel delays. And unfortunately in many of the cases, the IG said the FBI's rules allowed this inappropriate spying.
He explained further: “A 2002 revision of the Attorney General guidelines originally written after the COINTELPRO abuses in the 1970s said agents can investigate people based on the mere possibility that crime might occur. There's always the possibility that crime might occur, so none of us can feel safe. People used to say 'if you've done nothing wrong you have nothing to worry about,' but this report makes clear that the FBI investigated completely innocent people and put them on terrorist watchlists for years. And despite this abuse, in 2008 the AG guidelines were weakened even more.”
And the Washington Post quoted People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an animal rights group that was among those monitored.
"The use of McCarthyite tactics against PETA and other groups that speak out against cruelty to animals and exploitative corporate and government practices is un-American, unconstitutional, and against the interests of a healthy democracy.''
But despite the public outcry over the 2006 disclosure that federal agents had investigated dozens of domestic political advocacy groups, the FBI was motivated by concerns that members of the groups might commit crimes and was not spying on them because of their political views, the IG’s report said.
However, the report is sharply critical of the FBI for characterizing certain nonviolent crimes related to protest activities as terrorism. And it attacked the bureau for making a series of “false and misleading statements to the public and to Congress” about its surveillance of an antiwar protest on Nov. 29, 2002.
The FBI was quick to revert to defensive mode. An FBI spokesman, Michael Kortan, said that the report’s most important finding was that after “an exhaustive
review of hundreds of investigative decisions the FBI made after the Sept. 11 attacks,” the IG’s office “did not uncover even a single instance where the FBI targeted any group based on the exercise of a First Amendment right.”
Kortan also said that the report did not suggest “any significant modifications” of the bureau’s investigative powers.
The report involved investigations of antiwar, environmentalist and animal rights groups from the 2001 terrorist attacks through much of the administration
of President George W. Bush.
In its extensive coverage of this report, New York Times writer Charlie Savage led with the report’s First Amendment conclusion. However, it went on to detail actions and activities that the IG found suspect.
For example, in the case of the 2002 Pittsburgh protest, The Times reports that an FBI agent who attended the event filed a two-page account labeled “results of investigation of Pittsburgh antiwar activity.”
It detailed leafleting by people associated with the Thomas Merton Center, The Times wrote, which the agent described as a “left-wing organization” that advocated pacifism, to protest the coming Iraq war.
The account described the leaflets as making such claims as that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and raised questions about whether the center was linked to Muslims.
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century. Pittsburgh’s Thomas Merton Center began in 1972 to protest the continuation of the war in Vietnam. The Center raised funds for medical aid to Indochina and provided information for schools and religious education programs on racism, poverty, and war.
The Times notes that, after the ACLU made the report public, the bureau’s press office told reporters that the agent attended the protest “as a direct result of information provided to the F.B.I. related to an ongoing investigation.”
Later, the FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III, told Congress that the agent was trying to “identify an individual who happened to be, we believed, in attendance at that rally.”
But the inspector general found this story to be false: a supervisor had sent the agent to the protest as a “make-work” assignment to see if any subjects of Pittsburgh terrorism investigations “happened to show up without having any reason to think any of them would be there.”
The Times reports that the agent later told the inspector general’s office that he had gone overboard in carrying out that task because he was a recent hire, and he described the report as “atrocious” and a “horrible mistake,” saying he could “understand why people would become inflamed about it.”
In 2006, officials in the Pittsburgh office apparently came up with the story that the agent had attended the protest in search of a specific individual as part of a terrorism investigation — a false “after-the-fact justification” that
made its way into the press statement and briefing materials for Director Mueller.
The report also criticized several episodes in which it characterized FBI agents as opening or continuing investigations despite scant evidence of a federal crime, and it criticized classifying some nonviolent protest-related actions, like trespassing on a military base, as “terrorism” matters. As a result, it said, some people are being inappropriately put or kept on terrorism watch lists.