Groups Probe FBI Spying in ‘War on Terror’

NEW YORK – U.S. civil rights groups have filed multiple freedom of information requests around the country to uncover evidence that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local police are spying on political, environmental, and faith-based groups in the name of fighting terrorism.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests were filed in 10 states and the District of Columbia (DC) seeking details on the FBI’s use of Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) and local police to engage in political surveillance.

JTTFs are legal partnerships between the FBI and local police, in which police officers are "deputized" as federal agents and work with the agency to identify and monitor individuals and groups.

Filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the FOIAs seek FBI files of groups and individuals targeted for speaking out or practicing their faith, as well as information on how the practices and funding structure of the JTTFs are encouraging rampant and unwarranted spying.

"Our goal in this is to learn to the greatest extent possible how much the FBI is using JTTFs and their guidelines to infiltrate these groups," ACLU attorney Ben Wizner told IPS.

One of the FOIA requests names organizations such as antiwar group United for Peace and Justice, Greenpeace, Code Pink, a women-initiated peace and justice group, and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which might have been monitored by the task forces.

According to Wizner, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 sparked the Bush administration’s "war on terrorism," Attorney General John Ashcroft scrapped an FBI guideline – enacted after the agency infiltrated numerous groups during the 1960s and 1970s civil rights movement – that blocked its agents from spying on groups and individuals unless they were investigating a crime.

By scrapping that policy Ashcroft was, "essentially encouraging FBI agents to do fishing expeditions to spy in mosques, in antiwar meetings … without any reasonable suspicion that a crime was being committed," added Wizner.

ADC President Mary Rose Oakar said her group "supports all efforts to keep our country safe and we want law enforcement to protect us from real terrorists and criminals. However, targeting Arabs and Muslims on the basis of national origin and religion, sending undercover agents to antiwar meetings, and infiltrating student groups is not making us any safer."

"The FBI should not be wasting its time and our tax dollars spying on groups that are critical of certain government actions," added the leader of the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit group, in a statement.

Earlier this year, reports emerged that JTTFs had visited activists around the country to ask about their plans for August’s meeting of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in New York.

The committee officially nominated President George W. Bush to run in the Nov. 2 election.

"We hadn’t even been following [news of the RNC]; I didn’t even know when it was going to happen," activist Sarah Bardwell told IPS after being visited by four FBI agents and two police officers at her Denver home. "I think [the FBI is] basically just justifying violating people’s First Amendment rights [of freedom of religion, speech and assembly]," she added.

In a statement in August, FBI Assistant Director Cassandra M. Chandler responded that the agency "is not monitoring groups or interviewing individuals unless we receive intelligence that such individuals or groups may be planning violent and disruptive criminal activity or have knowledge of such activity."

"The FBI conducted interviews, within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution, in order to determine the validity of the threat information," she added.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the FBI – part of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) – has vastly stepped up its monitoring and surveillance of individuals and groups it considers suspicious. It and other law enforcement agencies have also been given greatly increased authority under the USA PATRIOT Act, which was hurriedly enacted and signed into law soon after the attacks.

The law permits agencies to conduct "sneak and peak" wiretaps and other forms of surveillance without immediate notification to the target.

The JTTFs, however, existed prior to 9/11.

Groups representing Arab and Muslim-Americans are confused by what appear to be conflicting signals from the Bush administration.

The government claims to be making serious efforts to "build bridges" to the constituencies, but simultaneously continues to practice discrimination and harassment. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission, a bipartisan government agency, recently reported widespread evidence of racial profiling against Arab and Muslim-Americans by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other law enforcement agencies.

These bodies respond that they are not conducting roundups in any community and are "not profiling based on race or religious affiliation [or] instituting a blanket detention policy." But since 9/11, some 5,000 members of the groups have been arrested and detained – some for long periods without legal counsel – but none have been convicted for terror-related crimes.

The ADC and 15 other human and civil rights groups have filed suits against the DOJ demanding release of information about people arrested and detained since Sept. 11, 2001.

Thursday’s ACLU/ADC requests "point to many documented examples of JTTF involvement in the investigation of environmental activists, antiwar protesters, and others who are clearly neither terrorists nor involved in terrorist activities."

Their actions include: "aggressively questioning Muslims and Arabs on the basis of religion or national origin rather than suspicion of wrongdoing; tracking down parents of student peace activists; downloading antiwar action alerts from Catholic Peace Ministries; infiltrating student groups, and sending undercover agents to National Lawyers Guild meetings," the documents allege.

Requests were also filed on behalf of numerous individuals, including an organizer for the Service Employees International Union, a former Catholic priest and student activists.

"They will say that a group whose means may include engaging in a sit-in to block traffic or who in the past might have had a member who threw a brick through a window is legitimately investigated by a joint terrorism task force," said Wizner. "The question is: do we want that kind of civil disobedience labeled and investigated as terrorism?"

With reporting by Marty Logan in Montreal.

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.