Anti-war rallies come under FBI scrutiny

Bureau says it's for safety, but others call it `chilling'

November 23, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The FBI has collected extensive information on the tactics, training and organization of anti-war demonstrators and has advised local law enforcement officials to report any suspicious activity at protests to its counterterrorism squads, according to interviews and a confidential bureau memorandum.

The memorandum, which the bureau sent to local law enforcement agencies last month in advance of anti-war demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco, detailed how protesters have sometimes used "training camps" to rehearse for demonstrations, the Internet to raise money and gas masks to defend against tear gas. The memorandum analyzed lawful activities such as recruiting demonstrators, as well as illegal activities, including using fake documentation to get into a secure site.

FBI officials said in interviews that the intelligence-gathering effort was aimed at identifying anarchists and "extremist elements" plotting violence - not at monitoring the political speech of law-abiding protesters.

The initiative has won the support of some local police officials, who view it as a critical way to maintain order at large demonstrations. Indeed, some said they thought the FBI's approach had helped to ensure that nationwide anti-war demonstrations in recent months, drawing hundreds of thousands of protesters, remained largely free of violence and disruption.

But some civil rights advocates and legal scholars said the monitoring program could signal a return to the well-documented abuses of the 1960s and 1970s, when J. Edgar Hoover was the FBI director and agents routinely spied on political protesters such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"The FBI is dangerously targeting Americans who are engaged in nothing more than lawful protest and dissent," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The line between terrorism and legitimate civil disobedience is blurred, and I have a serious concern about whether we're going back to the days of Hoover."

Herman Schwartz, a constitutional law professor at American University who has written about FBI history, said collecting intelligence at demonstrations was probably legal.

But he added: "As a matter of principle, it has a very serious chilling effect on peaceful demonstration. If you go around telling people, `We're going to ferret out information on demonstrations,' that deters people. People don't want their names and pictures in FBI files."

Past abuses

The abuses of the Hoover era, which included efforts by the FBI to harass and discredit Hoover's political enemies under a program known as Cointelpro, led to tight restrictions on FBI investigations of political activities.

Those restrictions were relaxed significantly last year, when Attorney General John Ashcroft issued guidelines giving FBI agents authority to attend political rallies, mosques and any event "that is open to the public."

Ashcroft said the Sept. 11 attacks made it essential that the FBI be allowed to investigate terrorism more aggressively. The bureau's recent strategy in policing demonstrations is an outgrowth of that policy, officials said.

"We're not concerned with individuals who are exercising their constitutional rights," one FBI official said. "But it's obvious that there are individuals capable of violence at these events. We know that there are anarchists that are actively involved in trying to sabotage and commit acts of violence at these different events, and we also know that these large gatherings would be a prime target for terrorist groups."

The FBI memorandum, circulated on Oct. 15 - just 10 days before many thousands gathered in Washington and San Francisco to protest the U.S. occupation of Iraq - noted that the bureau "possesses no information indicating that violent or terrorist activities are being planned as part of these protests" and that "most protests are peaceful events."

`Opportunity' for terror

But it pointed to violence at protests against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as evidence of potential disruption. Law enforcement officials said in interviews that they had become particularly concerned about the ability of anti-government groups to exploit demonstrations and promote a violent agenda.

"What a great opportunity for an act of terrorism, when all your resources are dedicated to some big event, and you let your guard down," a law enforcement official involved in securing recent demonstrations said. The memorandum urged local law enforcement officials "to be alert to these possible indicators of protest activity and report any potentially illegal acts" to counterterrorism task forces run by the FBI. It warned about an array of threats, including homemade bombs and the formation of human chains.

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