FBI watched political, social groups, agency records show

December 20, 2005|By ERIC LICHTBLAU | ERIC LICHTBLAU,THE NEW YORK TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Counterterrorism agents at the FBI 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.

FBI officials said yesterday 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 FBI'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.

But the documents, coming after the Bush administration's confirmation that President Bush had authorized domestic anti-terrorism spying without warrants, prompted charges from civil rights advocates that the government had improperly blurred the line between terrorism and acts of civil disobedience and lawful protest.

One FBI 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 document 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 ACLU has sought access to information in FBI files on about 150 protest and social groups that it says may have been improperly monitored.

The FBI had previously turned over a small number of documents on anti-war groups, showing the agency's interest in investigating possible anarchist or violent links in connection with anti-war protests and demonstrations in advance of the 2004 political conventions. And earlier this month, the ACLU'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 ACLU planned to release publicly today, 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 anti-poverty efforts and social causes.

Many of the investigative documents turned over by the bureau are heavily redacted, making it difficult or impossible to determine the full context of the references and why the FBI may have been discussing events like a PETA protest. FBI officials say many of the references may be 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 FBI file is not tantamount to being the subject of an investigation," said John Miller, a spokesman for the bureau.

"The FBI does not target individuals or organizations for investigation based on their political beliefs," Miller said. "Everything we do is carefully promulgated by federal law, Justice Department guidelines and the FBI's own rules."

ACLU officials said the latest documents released by the FBI indicated the agency's interest in a broader array of activist and protest groups than they had previously thought. In light of other recent disclosures about domestic surveillance activities by the National Security Agency and military intelligence units, the ACLU charged that the documents reflected a pattern of overreaching by the Bush administration.

"It's clear that this administration has engaged every possible agency, from the Pentagon to NSA to the FBI, to engage in spying on Americans," said Ann Beeson, associate legal director for the ACLU.

"You look at these documents," Beeson said, "and you think, wow, we have really returned to the days of J. Edgar Hoover."

Eric Lichtblau writes for The New York Times.

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