The U.S. government is engaging in political intimidation and improperly investigating law-abiding advocacy groups, civil liberties groups have charged – even as the U.S. Senate weighs renewing controversial counter-terrorism powers and the White House seeks to have them expanded.
The government’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces, composed of federal and local law enforcement agencies and scattered about the country, “are allowing local police officers to target peaceful political and religious groups with no connection to terrorism,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in a statement. Other organizations, including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), issued similar statements.
The advocacy groups filed a lawsuit Thursday asking a federal court to order the expedited processing of requests they made last December for government documents to be made public under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
To date, the ACLU said, it has received fewer than 20 pages in response to its FOIA requests. The Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1966 to give citizens greater access to government documents.
ACLU affiliates in 10 states filed similar requests. The ACLU was joined in the suit by organizations including the ADC, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the environmental group Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and United for Peace and Justice.
The FOIA requests seek two kinds of information: the actual FBI files of groups and individuals targeted; and information about how the practices and funding structure of the task forces may be encouraging what critics see as rampant and unwarranted spying.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees it, were named as defendants in the suit.
The suit charged that the FBI is wrongfully withholding thousands of pages of documents. The ACLU said that the few documents received to date through the December FOIA requests shed light on the FBI’s misuse of the task forces to engage in political surveillance. The ACLU said one FBI intelligence memorandum from November, 2003 “revealed that the FBI has actually directed police to target and monitor lawful political demonstrations under the rubric of fighting terrorism.”
The FBI, in a short statement released after the suit was filed and cited in news reports, said “it is the FBI’s top priority to prevent any act of terrorism.” This, it added, “requires special agents of the FBI to thoroughly investigate every credible threat received.”
The controversial FBI-led task forces came under scrutiny last month after Portland, in the northwestern state of Oregon, became the first city in the nation to withdraw local law enforcement participation from the task forces rather than allow officers to take part without proper oversight.
The task forces, in which local officers are “deputized” as federal agents, are intended to identify and monitor individuals and groups implicated in terrorism. But the ACLU charges that they are allowing local police officers to target peaceful political and religious groups with no connection to terrorism.
In response to widespread complaints from students and political activists who said they were questioned by FBI agents in the months leading up to last summer’s political party conventions, the ACLU filed FOIA requests in six states and Washington, DC last December on behalf of more than 100 groups and individuals.
The ACLU said FBI documents show that anti-terrorism agents who questioned anti-war protesters last summer in Denver, Colorado, were conducting “pretext interviews” that did not lead to any information about criminal activity.
FBI officials and then-Attorney General John Ashcroft said at the time that the interviews were based on indications that radical protesters might be planning violent disruptions. Authorities said one specific threat involved plans to blow up a media van in the northeastern city of Boston.
However, 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,” the ACLU said.
ACLU officials said the documents show that investigators from the FBI and the local task force were on a fishing expedition.
Meanwhile, the chairman and Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are working on a bill that would make permanent eight provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act counterterrorism law that are set to expire at the end of this year, while also expanding government powers.
The legislation being developed under the leadership of committee chairman Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, reportedly would let the FBI issue subpoenas without permission from a judge or grand jury to quickly obtain records, electronic data, or other evidence in terrorism investigations. The administration has sought this power for two years but senators have so far balked at granting it.
During recent congressional hearings on the expiring provisions, much of the focus was on limiting some of the powers in the anti-terrorism law, which had been hurriedly passed soon after the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States. Only one senator, Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, voted against the bill.
The Roberts bill also would make it easier for prosecutors to use special court-approved warrants for secret wiretaps and searches of suspected terrorists and spies in criminal cases, according to Intelligence Committee aides. Made permanent would be eight expiring sections of the law that deal with foreign intelligence investigations and a provision that authorizes wiretapping of suspected ‘lone wolf’ terrorists who operate without clear ties to a particular terrorist network.
“It’s a power grab,” Lisa Graves, the ACLU’s senior legislative counsel, told IPS. “It increases the executive branch’s power to secretly search and seize people’s medical records, tax records, firearms purchase records, and information about the books and magazines they read.”
“The government refuses to include a common sense protection that they have specific facts connecting the records they seek to a foreign terrorist. Without this fair assurance, records about your health, your wealth, and the transactions of your daily life are vulnerable to government seizure and because the search is secret you may never know it,” Graves added.