F.B.I. Watched Activist Groups, New Files Show
The New York Times leads with another big domestic spying story that, if taken to its logical conclusion, would dwarf the NSA surveillance case.
Counterterrorism agents at the Federal Bureau of Investigation have conducted numerous surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations that involved, at least indirectly, groups active in causes as diverse as the environment, animal cruelty and poverty relief, newly disclosed agency records show. F.B.I. officials said Monday that their investigators had no interest in monitoring political or social activities and that any investigations that touched on advocacy groups were driven by evidence of criminal or violent activity at public protests and in other settings.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, John Ashcroft, who was then attorney general, loosened restrictions on the F.B.I.’s investigative powers, giving the bureau greater ability to visit and monitor Web sites, mosques and other public entities in developing terrorism leads. The bureau has used that authority to investigate not only groups with suspected ties to foreign terrorists, but also protest groups suspected of having links to violent or disruptive activities.
One F.B.I. document indicates that agents in Indianapolis planned to conduct surveillance as part of a “Vegan Community Project.” Another document talks of the Catholic Workers group’s “semi-communistic ideology.” A third indicates the bureau’s interest in determining the location of a protest over llama fur planned by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The documents, provided to The New York Times over the past week, came as part of a series of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. For more than a year, the A.C.L.U. has been seeking access to information in F.B.I. files on about 150 protest and social groups that it says may have been improperly monitored.
The F.B.I. had previously turned over a small number of documents on antiwar groups, showing the agency’s interest in investigating possible anarchist or violent links in connection with antiwar protests and demonstrations in advance of the 2004 political conventions. And earlier this month, the A.C.L.U.’s Colorado chapter released similar documents involving, among other things, people protesting logging practices at a lumber industry gathering in 2002. The latest batch of documents, parts of which the A.C.L.U. plans to release publicly on Tuesday, totals more than 2,300 pages and centers on references in internal files to a handful of groups, including PETA, the environmental group Greenpeace and the Catholic Workers group, which promotes antipoverty efforts and social causes.
Many of the investigative documents turned over by the bureau are heavily edited, making it difficult or impossible to determine the full context of the references and why the F.B.I. may have been discussing events like a PETA protest. F.B.I. officials say many of the references may be much more benign than they seem to civil rights advocates, adding that the documents offer an incomplete and sometimes misleading snapshot of the bureau’s activities. “Just being referenced in an F.B.I. file is not tantamount to being the subject of an investigation,” said John Miller, a spokesman for the bureau. “The F.B.I. does not target individuals or organizations for investigation based on their political beliefs,” Mr. Miller said. “Everything we do is carefully promulgated by federal law, Justice Department guidelines and the F.B.I.’s own rules.”
The documents indicate that in some cases, the F.B.I. has used employees, interns and other confidential informants within groups like PETA and Greenpeace to develop leads on potential criminal activity and has downloaded material from the groups’ Web sites, in addition to monitoring their protests. In the case of Greenpeace, which is known for highly publicized acts of civil disobedience like the boarding of cargo ships to unfurl protest banners, the files indicate that the F.B.I. investigated possible financial ties between its members and militant groups like the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front. These networks, which have no declared leaders and are only loosely organized, have been described by the F.B.I. in Congressional testimony as “extremist special interest groups” whose cells engage in violent or other illegal acts, making them “a serious domestic terrorist threat.”
There’s not much doubt that the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front are extremist groups that use terrorist tactics and other criminal means to advance their causes. To a lesser extent, that’s also true of Greenpeace, which uses tactics substantially more destructive than “unfurling banners” to get their point across. That said, they are not “terrorist groups” within the scope of the counter-terrorism division.
One hopes that the F.B.I.’s disclaimers here are right.