FBI Spied and Lied, Misled Justice Department on Improper Surveillance of Peace Groups

The FBI misled the Justice Department and improperly spied on peaceful activist groups based on the factually weak possibility of a federal crime.

The Justice Department Inspector General (IG) discovered improper FBI spying investigations were frequently opened based upon “factually weak” justifications. The FBI classified some investigations relating to nonviolent civil disobedience under its "Acts of Terrorism" classification. People associated with advocacy groups were generally predicated on suspicion that the individual might potentially commit a crime.

The ACLU published its Spy Files about illegal domestic spying and reported that spying on free speech was nearly at a Cold War level. The ACLU's evidence of unlawful surveillance prompted Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine to investigate FBI spying practices.

According to the Justice Department's 209 page Review of the FBI's Investigation of Certain Domestic Advocacy Groups, the FBI improperly spied on some left-leaning American individuals who were associated with advocacy groups. After a hand-slap from the Justice Department for the FBI giving misleading information about spying on peace groups, it was announced that the FBI surveillance of activists was not politically motivated.

The FBI did, however, use "questionable investigative techniques and improperly collected and retained First Amendment information." A probationary FBI agent was sent on a "slow work day" to look for terrorism subjects at anti-war rally at the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh. It resulted "in the placement of inappropriate information in FBI files." An FBI agent recruited and assigned a "source" to conduct surveillance for an investigation of people who were allegedly associated with, or attended meetings, at the Merton Center. The IG report stated, "Even if the FBI's conduct did not violate the Privacy Act, we are concerned by the lack of justification for the FBI's activities in this matter and the resulting implications for the First Amendment rights of individuals."

Have you ever trespassed? Be careful if you have because some U.S. citizens were put on terrorist watch lists for "potential crimes" such as trespassing or vandalism which the IG said, "may not commonly be considered as terrorism." Any person who is a subject of a domestic terrorism investigation is normally placed on a watch list and their travels and interactions with law enforcement may then be tracked. Information collected by the FBI in one case had "no relationship to any violent activities much less to terrorism."

The IG’s report covered several FBI targets following the Sept. 11 attacks: an anti-war rally in Pittsburgh related to the Thomas Merton Center, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Greenpeace, The Catholic Worker (a peace magazine), and Glen Milner a "Quaker peace activist." The FBI was found to have opened and extended monitoring of individuals in these groups, spying on them without grounds to suspect unlawful activity.

FBI files included characterizations of the Catholic Worker as advocating, among other things, "peace with a Christian and semi-communistic ideology." The IG concluded that such a characterization of the Catholic Worker "lacked a reasonable and necessary relationship to any alleged actions on the group's part to impede the National Missile Defense launches."

Some Greenpeace members landed on terrorism watch lists after FBI agents incorrectly indicated that their nonviolent acts of civil disobedience were "Acts of Terrorism."

Officials from the FBI defended their tactics, saying they were trying to protect Americans. Yet the FBI made false and misleading statements to Congress and to the American public, trying to quiet criticism over its unlawful spying activities. FBI Director Robert Mueller gave false information, claiming a 2002 Pittsburgh anti-war rally was monitored because of intelligence that persons with links to international terrorism would be present. Justice Department investigators decided Mueller’s false testimony was unintentional because he was wrongly informed.

ACLU Senior Policy Counsel and former FBI agent Michael German said, “The FBI has a long history of abusing its national security surveillance powers, reaching back to the smear campaign waged by the American government against Dr. Martin Luther King. Americans peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights were able to become targets of FBI surveillance because spying guidelines that were established after the shameful abuses of the 60s and 70s were loosened in 2002. Unfortunately, they were loosened again in 2008, even after this abuse was uncovered.

German continued, “Unless the rules regulating the FBI are strengthened to safeguard the privacy of innocent Americans, we are all in danger of being spied on and added to terrorist watch lists for doing nothing more than attending a rally or holding up a sign.”

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