FBI Did Not Try to Cow Protesters, Report Says

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 29, 2006

FBI interviews of protesters before and during the 2004 political conventions were carried out for "legitimate law enforcement purposes" and not to prevent people from demonstrating, the Justice Department's inspector general said yesterday.

In a 37-page report, Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said the FBI was checking out 17 protester-related threats of disruption at the Democratic and Republican conventions when it conducted interviews, carried out physical surveillance and searched for protesters' names in FBI databases. The FBI tracked down 60 people in nine states, and 41 consented to interviews, the report said.

"Our review did not substantiate the allegations that the FBI improperly targeted protesters for interviews in an effort to chill the exercise of their First Amendment rights," Fine wrote. "We concluded that the FBI's interviews of potential convention protesters and others that we reviewed were conducted for legitimate law enforcement purposes."

FBI spokesman John Miller said the agency knew its dealings with protesters would be a sensitive subject, and provided training and guidance to agents well in advance.

"The OIG report shows the FBI conducted its investigations properly," Miller said. "They went into this with their eyes open, saying this can be brittle territory and it's important to be mindful of the regulations and do it carefully."

The American Civil Liberties Union has accused the agency of using the threat of terrorism as a pretext to intimidate protesters and dissuade them from gathering at the national party conventions. The group, which has sued the FBI for records, says that through extensive Freedom of Information Act requests, it has turned up evidence of political intimidation on other occasions not related to the party gatherings.

"We think that the facts discussed in the report confirm what we've been saying all along, which is that one of the reasons that the FBI was interviewing protesters around the country was to discourage them -- inappropriately -- from attending the political conventions," said Ann Beeson, associate legal director of the ACLU. "We are still quite concerned with an overall pattern, with the targeting of peaceful groups, based primarily on their rights of association and free speech."

Beeson pointed to a section of Fine's report that examined the FBI's practice of conducting "pretext interviews" with potential protesters before the conventions in an effort to dig up threat information. The report quotes a memo from the FBI's St. Louis field office as saying, in part: "The purpose of the interviews will be to increase intelligence in this area and discourage the interviewees from traveling to any of the above [events] to criminally disrupt the event."

Fine concluded that the FBI conducted such interviews to address "what it believed was a serious threat of violence." He found "no evidence" that the agency was trying to prevent protesters from going to the conventions to exercise free-speech rights.

But Beeson said it all depends on what the FBI believes it means to "criminally disrupt" a party convention.

"By criminal activity, do they mean Thomas Paine-style civil disobedience?" she asked. "That's criminal, theoretically -- to stand and block traffic or step over a trespass line. But the ACLU and other First Amendment advocates would say that kind of legitimate protest is no excuse for the FBI to discourage protesters from attending political events. There is a long tradition of that kind of civil disobedience."

The IG report is silent about whether any state or local police who were not working with the FBI did anything to intimidate protesters.

As Fine noted, "Our review did not examine the role of non-federal law enforcement agencies acting independently of the FBI, which, according to press accounts, also engaged in investigative activities such as interviews and surveillance at protest events, including the two 2004 political conventions."

The ACLU has complained about extensive videotaping of protesters by local police at the 2004 Republican convention in New York, where hundreds of people said they were swept up in mass arrests, subjected to lengthy detentions and charged with minor offenses.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company