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.

F.B.I. Watched Activist Groups, New Files Show

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.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Environment, Terrorism, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    I just can’t get that “deja vu all over again” feeling out of my mouth. Despite all the protestations of innocence, I’m bothered by the old saying: “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

  2. Herb says:

    Most of these groups NEED watching.

  3. DC Loser says:

    And when Hillary is President you know who she’ll be watching. What goes around comes around.

  4. Jonk says:

    So what? Isn’t this the job of the FBI, to figure out if a particular group is a threat or not? You do that by checking out what they are doing…

  5. Anderson says:

    Pardon me, but if the FBI under a Democratic administration were surveilling the NRA, I don’t think we’d be hearing such sanguine voices shrugging it off. (Mixed metaphor, sorry.)

  6. RA says:

    If anyone should be investigated it should be J Rockafeller for his collaberation with Syria.

  7. RA says:

    We should also investigate these news outlets that print stories on highly classified materials. I want to see 100 MSM “jounalists” behind bars by next Christmas for contempt of court for hiding their sources during a criminal investigation.

    If they were held to the same standard as all Americans, they would be issuing jail suites right out of journalism school.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: The NRA is a weak analogy. Perhaps Operation Rescue or one of the white Christian militia groups, perhaps?

    I’m leery of spying on citizens but, so long as the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed in terms of 4th Amendment rights, am willing to concede that there are radical groups (e.g., the KKK in the 1960s) that need to be monitored by the FBI.

    I’m really more concerned that the CT Division is doing the work rather than the traditional agents.

  9. Dodd says:

    The Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front are terrorist groups – they use force, sometimes violently (though they usually stick to property damage, they like arson, which has a high potential to result in other people’s death), in an effort to effect political goals – and the FBI would be failing to do its job if it didn’t try to infiltrate them and stop them.

  10. McGehee says:

    And when Hillary is President you know who she’ll be watching. What goes around comes around.

    That won’t be “coming around,” DC — that’ll be “back to square one.”

  11. McGehee says:

    Pardon me, but if the FBI under a Democratic administration were surveilling the NRA, I don’t think we’d be hearing such sanguine voices shrugging it off. (Mixed metaphor, sorry.)

    Don’t you remember the IRS audits that all the conservative groups and think tanks were suddenly and suspiciously treated to during the 1990s?

  12. Jonk says:

    I don’t care who gets a looking over, left or right of center. The FBI has a job to prevent, not simply react, to criminal activity.

  13. Don says:

    Why do I have this uncanny sense that, somewhere, Richard Nixon is smiling?

  14. Marcia L. Neil says:

    Of course the F. B. I. watched — often only a few words or phrases [“utterances”] elicited during a telephone call-demand operational method will be used to initiate and mobilize new groups continuously.

  15. anjin-san says:

    Better send the FBI over to give Jonk’s home a good search. Who knows, he could be planning a crime. Or criticising the wise policies of our benevolent leaders…

  16. Jonk says:

    As long as they start at your place first…they are welcome here anytime.