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ACLU accuses FBI of 'spying' on activists
The Christian Science Monitor
By Tom Regan
December 19 2005

On the same day that the FBI warned a Congressional committee about the danger of "domestic terrorism," the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Wednesday accused the FBI of using terrorism as a pretext to spy on activists who "oppose the war in Iraq, the USA Patriot Act, and other government policies."

The BBC reports that senior officials from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms (ATF) and Explosives told a Senate panel Wednesday that they are "increasingly concerned" about "violent animal rights extremists and eco-terrorists." The law enforcement officials said they were particularly concerned about the activities of two groups: the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).

'Extremists have used arson, bombings, theft, animal releases, vandalism and office takeovers to achieve their goals,' said Mr. John Lewis, the FBI's counter-terrorism deputy assistant director. 'Investigating and preventing animal rights extremism and eco-terrorism is one of the FBI's highest domestic priorities,' he told the Senate committee on environment and public works.

But CNN reports that there was a fair amount of skepticism from some senators about the FBI and DEA's assessment of the threat level from these groups. Independent Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont noted that the number of people possibly threatened by any action of ALF or ELF numbered perhaps in the dozens, "but an incident at a chemical, nuclear or wastewater facility would threaten tens of thousands."

Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey wondered if the FBI was considering any one who protested government policy as a potential terrorist.

"The Department of Homeland Security spends over $40 billion a year to protect the home front," Sen. Frank Lautenberg said. After listing Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah, [Lautenberg] wanted to know who else the law enforcement agencies considered terrorists: "Right to Life? Sierra Club?" Lautenberg declared himself "a tree hugger."

Meanwhile, the ACLUissued a statement that said "the FBI and local police are engaging in intimidation based on political association and are improperly investigating law-abiding human rights and advocacy groups." The statement was based on information gathered from numerous Freedom of Information Act requests. The ACLU said it was filing a lawsuit in federal court to force the FBI to turn over "thousands of pages" of extra information that had been withheld.

"Since when did feeding the homeless become a terrorist activity?" asked ACLU Associate Legal Director Ann Beeson. "When the FBI and local law enforcement target groups like [Colorado-based] Food Not Bombs under the guise of fighting terrorism, many Americans who oppose government policies will be discouraged from speaking out and exercising their rights."

The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the ACLU documents show that "anti-terrorism agents who questioned antiwar protesters last summer in Denver were conducting 'pretext interviews' that did not lead to any information about criminal activity."

FBI officials and then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said at the time that the interviews were based on indications that radical protesters may be planning violent disruptions. Authorities said one specific threat involved plans to blow up a media van in Boston.

But the new memos provide no indication of specific threat information. Instead, one heavily censored memo from the FBI's Denver field office, dated Aug. 2, 2004, characterized the effort as "pretext interviews to gain general information concerning possible criminal activity at the upcoming political conventions and presidential election."

ACLU branches in several states also announced that they were taking legal action to investigate more about the FBI allegded spying on political activists.

The Boston Globe reported Wednesday that "The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts is seeking FBI files on behalf of four advocacy groups and 10 activists in the state, saying it believes they have been targets of surveillance because of their politics."

The ACLU, in Freedom of Information Act requests it plans to send out today, is requesting all records kept by the FBI and antiterrorism agencies on the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group in Cambridge; the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which has a state chapter in Boston; the International Action Committee Boston, an antiwar group, and the ACLU itself. The letter also seeks government files on 10 activists and political dissidents, including such liberal heavyweights as Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky.

The Globe reports that an FBI spokesman said he had no comment on the situation in Massachusetts, but acknowledged that the FBI had conducted surveillance on some "Colorado-based activist groups, including Food Not Bombs, in response to a 'specific and credible threat' of violence at the Democratic National Convention last July."

The Associated Press reports, however, that the ACLU demanded that police in Denver "prove they are not using officers assigned to counterterrorism duties to spy on activists."

FBI documents obtained by the ACLU under the Freedom of Information Act suggest Denver officers assigned to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force might have been gathering such information as recently as December, said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the Colorado ACLU.

That would violate an agreement the city made to settle an ACLU lawsuit over 'spy files' that police had gathered for decades on political activists. Police agreed not to gather such information unless there was legitimate suspicion of criminal activity.

The FBI has not allowed the activities of the two local police officers assigned to the counterterrorism task force to be "audited" as it is stipulated in the legal agreement. The Denver Post reports that Denver City Council President Elbra Wedgeworth, who helped draw up the agreement between the ACLU and the city, said "a lack of oversight of Denver's terrorism detectives 'is something I'm concerned about and looking into.' "

The Seattle Times reported in late April that the city of Portland, Oregon withdrew its police officers from the FBI's counterterrorism force in that city after the FBI "refused to raise [the Portland mayor's] security clearance, which he said was necessary for him to provide full oversight of city officers on the task force." Oregon has a law that says police officers cannot spy on anyone engaged in legitimate political activity.

Finally, Reuters reported on Tueday that the Senate panel which will review the USA Patriot Act ran into criticism almost immediately when it said it would conduct its review in secret. A spokseman for Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas said the meeting was in secret because it would discuss "actual intelligence operations."

But ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said in a statement: 'One reason that people across the political spectrum are concerned about the Patriot Act is that so much of it is shrouded in secrecy. Now, lawmakers are trying to keep legislation to reauthorize the Patriot Act secret as well.'