December 20, 2005
F.B.I. Watched Activist Groups, New Files Show
By ERIC LICHTBLAU
WASHINGTON, Dec. 19 – 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.
But the documents, coming after the Bush administration’s confirmation that President Bush had authorized some spying without warrants in fighting terrorism, 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 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.”
A.C.L.U officials said the latest batch of documents released by the F.B.I. 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 A.C.L.U. said 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 N.S.A. to the F.B.I., to engage in spying on Americans,” said Ann Beeson, associate legal director for the A.C.L.U.
“You look at these documents,” Ms. Beeson said, “and you think, wow, we have really returned to the days of J. Edgar Hoover, when you see in F.B.I. files that they’re talking about a group like the Catholic Workers league as having a communist ideology.”
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.”
In testimony last year, John E. Lewis, deputy assistant director of the counterterrorism division, said the F.B.I. estimated that in the past 10 years such groups had engaged in more than 1,000 criminal acts causing more than $100 million in damage.
When the F.B.I. investigates evidence of possible violence or criminal disruptions at protests and other events, those investigations are routinely handled by agents within the bureau’s counterterrorism division.
But the groups mentioned in the newly disclosed F.B.I. files questioned both the propriety of characterizing such investigations as related to “terrorism” and the necessity of diverting counterterrorism personnel from more pressing investigations.
“The fact that we’re even mentioned in the F.B.I. files in connection with terrorism is really troubling,” said Tom Wetterer, general counsel for Greenpeace. “There’s no property damage or physical injury caused in our activities, and under any definition of terrorism, we’d take issue with that.”
Jeff Kerr, general counsel for PETA, rejected the suggestion in some F.B.I. files that the animal rights group had financial ties to militant groups, and said he, too, was troubled by his group’s inclusion in the files.
“It’s shocking and it’s outrageous,” Mr. Kerr said. “And to me, it’s an abuse of power by the F.B.I. when groups like Greenpeace and PETA are basically being punished for their social activism.”