Those who remember recent history will not be surprised to learn that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been amassing files on the American Civil Liberties Union, Greenpeace, and other critics of the George W. Bush administration.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, and other intelligence agencies all conspired to engage in widespread spying on ordinary U.S. citizens and illegal covert operations.
The targets back then were left-wing groups and individuals, civil rights and anti-Vietnam activists, and, of course, President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.”
The leader of the pack was the FBI’s powerful first director, J. Edgar Hoover who had started his witch-hunting career in the 1920s under Attorney General Mitchell Palmer.
Palmer’s infamous “Red Raids” were enabled by a national environment of fear and suspicion and led to the jailing or deportation of hundreds of communists, Bolsheviks, and other dissidents, including Emma Goldman, the well-known Russian émigré anarchist.
The FBI under Hoover collected information on all the country’s leading politicians. Known as Hoover’s “secret files,” this incriminating material was used to make sure that the eight presidents under whom he served would be too frightened to sack him. The strategy worked and Hoover was still in office when he died, aged 77, in 1972.
But it was the FBI’s spying on Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that ended that era of government snooping. The FBI had used wiretaps and a covert operation, personally directed by Hoover, to unearth derogatory information intended to destroy King as a national civil rights leader.
Today, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the FBI is again armed with expanded powers to collect information on ordinary citizens. And it has been doing so.
That is what the FBI itself disclosed in federal court yesterday. It acknowledged that it has collected 1,173 pages of files on the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); 2,383 on Greenpeace, the environmental advocacy group; and an undetermined number of files on an organization called United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), a coalition of more than 1,000 antiwar groups. The coalition allegedly was planning protests at the time of the Republican Party National Convention in New York.
Six pages of internal documents from the FBI’s Los Angeles Bureau reportedly related to UFPJ, and referred to possible anarchist connections of some protesters and the prospect for disruptions.
But it also quoted at greater length from uncontroversial statements the protesters posted on their Web site and elsewhere in advance of the Republican convention.
The government’s court filing came in response to a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) brought by the ACLU and other groups that maintain that the FBI has engaged in a pattern of political surveillance against critics of the Bush administration.
The ACLU is seeking FBI records since 2001 or earlier on some 150 groups that have questioned the Iraq war and other policies. The ACLU first filed FOIA requests in 10 states and the District of Columbia seeking information about the FBI’s use of Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) and local police to engage in political surveillance. The FOIAs sought the actual FBI files of groups and individuals targeted and information about how the practices and funding structure of the JTTFs encouraged spying. JTTFs are legal partnerships between the FBI and local police, in which local officers are “deputized” as federal agents and work in coordination with the FBI to identify and monitor individuals and groups. While their purpose is to investigate terrorism, they have targeted peaceful political and religious groups with no connection to terrorism. When the FBI failed to respond to the FOIA request, the ACLU sued the government. The FOIA law was passed in 1968 to give the public greater access to government documents.
The Justice Department is opposing the ACLU request to expedite the review of material it is seeking under FOIA, saying it does not involve a matter of urgent public interest, and department lawyers say the sheer volume of material, in the thousands of pages, will take them eight to 11 months to process for Greenpeace and the ACLU alone.
Earlier, the ACLU went to court in a separate case to obtain some 60,000 pages of records on the government’s detention and interrogation practices. The organization said the FBI records on the dozens of protest groups could total tens of thousands of pages.
DOJ officials did not reveal what was in the ACLU and Greenpeace files, citing the pending lawsuit. But they denied that they have sought to monitor the political activities of any activist groups, and say that any intelligence-gathering activities related to political protests were intended to prevent disruptive and criminal activity at demonstrations, not to silence free speech.
Beau Grosscup, a professor of international relations at California State University and author of The Newest Explosions of Terrorism: Latest Sites of Terrorism in the ’90s and Beyond, told IPS, “All one has to do is look at the annual FBI report on terrorism to discover that as they watch the ACLU, Earth First, Greenpeace, and the peace movement, they refuse to apply their political attention to the violence of the right-wing and in particular anti-environmental groups.”
“Why would the FBI collect almost 1,200 pages on a civil rights organization engaged in lawful activity? What justification could there be, other than political surveillance of lawful First Amendment activities?” asked ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero.
A smaller batch of documents already turned over by the government sheds light on the interest of FBI counterterrorism officials in protests surrounding the Iraq war and last year’s Republican National Convention.
These documents are reportedly similar in tone to a bulletin distributed among FBI counterterrorism officials in October 2003 analyzing the activities of antiwar demonstrators who were then planning protests in Washington and San Francisco.
When an FBI employee charged that the memo blurred the line between lawfully protected speech and illegal activity, the Justice Department conducted an internal investigation but found that the bulletin did not raise legal problems and that any First Amendment impact posed by the FBI’s monitoring of the political protests was negligible and constitutional.
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