By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
FBI counterterrorism investigators are monitoring domestic U.S. advocacy groups engaged in antiwar, environmental, civil rights and other causes, the American Civil Liberties Union charged yesterday as it released new FBI records that it said detail the extent of the activity.
The documents, disclosed as part of a lawsuit that challenges FBI treatment of groups that planned demonstrations at last year's political conventions, show the bureau has opened a preliminary terrorism investigation into People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the well-known animal rights group based in Norfolk.
The papers offer no proof of PETA's involvement in illegal activity. But more than 100 pages of heavily censored FBI files show the agency used secret informants and tracked the group's events for years, including an animal rights conference in Washington in July 2000, a community meeting at an Indiana college in spring 2003 and a planned August 2004 protest of a celebrity fur endorser.
The documents show the FBI cultivated sources such as a "well insulated" PETA insider, who attended the 2000 meeting to gain credibility "within the animal rights/Ruckus movements." The FBI also kept information on Greenpeace and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the papers show.
The disclosure comes amid recent revelations about the extent of domestic spying by the government after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Those disclosures include the expansion within the United States of military intelligence and databases covering, among others, peace activists; increased use of "national security letters" by the FBI to examine personal records of tens of thousands of citizens; and, most recently, warrantless eavesdropping of overseas telephone calls and e-mails by U.S. citizens suspected of ties to terrorists.
ACLU leaders contend that the memos show that FBI and government Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the country have expanded the definition of domestic terrorism to people who engage in mainstream political activity, including nonviolent protest and civil disobedience.
"The FBI should use its resources to investigate credible threats to national security instead of spending time tracking innocent Americans who criticize government policy, or monitoring groups that have not broken the law," ACLU Associate Legal Director Ann Beeson said. Previously released papers showed that the FBI kept files that mentioned the organizations, she said, "But we didn't know that they actually launched counterterrorism investigations into these groups."
FBI officials said that the agency is not using the threat of terrorism to suppress domestic dissent and that is has no alternative but to investigate if a group or its members have ties to others that are guilty or suspected of violence or illegal conduct.
"As a matter of policy, the FBI does not target individuals or organizations for investigation because of any political belief. Somewhere, there has to be a crime attached," FBI spokesman John Miller said. "At the same time, the fact that you have ties to an organization or political beliefs does not make you immune from ending up in FBI files when you go and commit a crime."
The status of the PETA inquiry is unclear. Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said: "The Justice Department does not comment on or confirm the existence of criminal investigations. All matters referred to the department by the intelligence agencies for purposes of further investigation are taken seriously and thoroughly reviewed."
PETA general counsel Jeff Kerr called the FBI's conduct an abuse of power that punishes activists for speaking out.
"These documents show a disturbing erosion of freedom of association and freedom of speech that we've taken for granted and that set us apart from oppressive countries like the former Iraq," Kerr said, adding that the documents show no illegal activity by PETA. "You shouldn't have to wonder when you go to a speech at a college campus, or when you go to a meeting, whether you're being surveilled by the FBI. It goes back to the dark days of Nixon and the enemies list."
John Lewis, the FBI's deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, told a Senate panel in May that environmental and animal rights militants posed the biggest terrorist threats in the United States, citing more than 150 pending investigations.
The ACLU said it received 2,357 pages of files on PETA, Greenpeace, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the ACLU itself. One file referring to the committee included a contact list for students and peace activists who attended a 2002 conference at Stanford University aimed at ending sanctions then in place in Iraq.
The FBI has said that when it interviewed members of groups planning demonstrations at last year's conventions, it did not yield information into criminal activity. But the agency said the interviews were prompted by specific threats. The latest data lay out a similar, broader pattern regarding 150 groups whose FBI files the ACLU has asked to see.
For example, a June 19, 2002, e-mail cites a source offering information on Greenpeace regarding "activists who show a clear predisposition to violate the law." Other documents contain suspicions that PETA funds, supports or otherwise acts as a front for "eco-terrorist" groups that use arson, bombs or vandalism, such as the Animal Liberation Front or Earth Liberation Front.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.