The American Civil Liberties Union joined with dozens of activist groups yesterday in demanding information about federal counterterrorism surveillance efforts, alleging that the FBI and local police departments have targeted peaceful protest groups and law-abiding citizens for scrutiny based on their political beliefs.
In Freedom of Information Act requests filed in the District and 10 states, the ACLU and its affiliates are seeking FBI files about groups and individuals allegedly under surveillance. They are also asking for details about the operations of Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which include federal and local law enforcement officers and which coordinate counterterrorism probes regionally.
The ACLU points to several incidents over the past year involving antiwar protesters, environmental groups and religious organizations that have raised questions about the scope of counterterrorism investigations. The organization argues that the evidence suggests a pattern of broader harassment of left-leaning groups.
"We aren't trying to say that they can't and don't need to investigate people who happen to be members of political or religious groups when they have concrete evidence of criminality," said ACLU Associate Legal Director Ann Beeson. "But we have evidence that they are targeting these groups with nothing at all. . . . They shouldn't be wasting their time or our money infiltrating peace groups or collecting files on the Quakers or the Catholic Peace Ministries."
An FBI official, who would discuss details of counterterrorism cases only on the condition of anonymity, said some of the incidents highlighted by the ACLU did not involve the FBI. In other cases, the FBI was investigating legitimate potential threats connected to the national political conventions or other events, the official said.
"They've drawn their conclusion before they've done their research," the FBI official said. "All of our cases are predicated on allegations of criminal activity or national security issues. . . . If there is a threat involved, we have to look at it."
The debate is the latest in a series of disputes over the aggressive counterterrorism tactics used by federal authorities since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which prompted a restructuring of the FBI to focus on thwarting future terrorist strikes and ushered in legislation that strengthened the Justice Department's ability to conduct secret searches and surveillance.
The ACLU and other groups have been particularly critical of an FBI "intelligence bulletin" issued in October 2003 that urged local police to monitor antiwar protests and to "report any potentially illegal acts to the nearest FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force."
The ACLU also highlighted several specific cases across the country that have previously drawn condemnation from activist groups. They include subpoenas issued, and then withdrawn, in Des Moines in connection with an antiwar protest; a series of interviews conducted by federal and local authorities in connection with alleged threats on media organizations at the Democratic National Convention in Boston; and the discovery by peace activists in Fresno, Calif., that their group had been infiltrated by a member of the local sheriff's department.
Several cases have revolved around groups in Colorado, where the Denver Police Department agreed in a legal settlement last year to stop keeping "spy files" on protesters. The ACLU says some of those files were shared with the local JTTF and the FBI.
"The FBI has a history of being heavy-handed," said David Crawford, executive director of Rocky Mountain Animal Defense of Boulder, an organization whose name was among those shared with the federal terrorism task force because the Denver police had labeled it a "criminal extremist" group. "People are concerned that their name is going to end up on a list somewhere, all because they are participating in peaceful activities and exercising their free-speech rights."