By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
A secret FBI intelligence unit helped detain a group of war protesters in a downtown Washington parking garage in April 2002 and interrogated some of them on videotape about their political and religious beliefs, newly uncovered documents and interviews show.
For years, law enforcement authorities suggested it never happened. The FBI and D.C. police said they had no records of such an incident. And police told a federal court that no FBI agents were present when officers arrested more than 20 protesters that afternoon for trespassing; police viewed them as suspicious for milling around the parking garage entrance.
But a civil lawsuit, filed by the protesters, recently unearthed D.C. police logs that confirm the FBI's role in the incident. Lawyers for the demonstrators said the logs, which police say they just found, bolster their allegations of civil rights violations.
The probable cause to arrest the protesters as they retrieved food from their parked van? They were wearing black -- a color choice the FBI and police associated with anarchists, according to the police records.
FBI agents dressed in street clothes separated members to question them one by one about protests they attended, whom they had spent time with recently, what political views they espoused and the significance of their tattoos and slogans, according to interviews and court records.
The revelations, combined with protester accounts, provide the first public evidence that Washington-based FBI personnel used their intelligence-gathering powers in the District to collect purely political intelligence. Ultimately, the protesters were not prosecuted because there wasn't sufficient evidence of trespassing, and their arrest records were expunged.
Similar intelligence-gathering operations have been reported in New York, where a local police intelligence unit tried to infiltrate groups planning to protest at the Republican National Convention in 2004, and in Colorado, where records surfaced showing that the FBI collected names and license plates of people protesting timber industry practices at a 2002 industry convention.
Several federal courts have ruled that intelligence agencies can monitor domestic groups only when there is reason to believe the group is engaged in criminal activity. Experts in police conduct say it is hard to imagine how asking questions about a person's political views would be appropriate in a trespassing case.
The Washington case centers on activities that took place April 20, 2002 -- a day of three cacophonic but generally orderly rallies that drew an estimated 75,000 people to the Mall. They included groups demonstrating against the prospect of war in Iraq, numerous supporters of the war, and Palestinians and others rallying for an end to U.S. aid to Israel and for peace in the Middle East.
The police logs for that day show how events developed: Secret Service agents had some concern about a group near the JBG Co. building's garage at 1275 K St. NW just after 5 p.m.
"Intell 53 advises that five members of the anarchist group have entered a parking garage," reads an entry from 5:12 p.m.
Ten minutes later, an entry notes the FBI's role.
"FBI, JOCC advises that an FBI intell team is responding to area of 13th and K/L Streets regarding a report of alleged anarchists in the vicinity," it reads. "There are reportedly 15 anarchists at 13th and K being interviewed. The subjects reportedly had a passkey to a building, but it's unknown how they came to be in possession of it."
The entry notes that D.C. police also were at the site. The protesters were detained at the garage for more than an hour, logs show, until police decided to arrest them for alleged unlawful entry.
D.C. police officials acknowledged in 2003 that the department had a secret intelligence unit that infiltrated and monitored protest groups in the Washington area, even if authorities had no evidence of criminal activity. The practice drew complaints from the D.C. Council, and police promised to develop guidelines.
The Partnership for Civil Justice, a civil liberties group, helped 11 protesters sue D.C. police in 2003 and the FBI last year, alleging that the questioning and detentions violated their civil rights.
In response to the suit, D.C. police at first said that no police intelligence officials were involved in the arrests. Last year, city officials revealed under additional questioning that five members of the police intelligence unit were present.
The plaintiffs argue that the newly released police logs make clear that the FBI, working hand in hand with local police, is engaged in a concerted effort to spy on and intimidate U.S. citizens who are lawfully exercising their free-speech rights. They contend that this is a national effort that abuses the FBI's broad counterterrorism powers and equates political speech with a risk to national security.
"It really is a secret police: This is an effort to suppress political dissent," said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice. "If this was happening in another country that the U.S. was targeting, U.S. officials at the highest levels would be decrying this as a violation of human rights,"
FBI spokeswoman Debbie Weierman said the agency stands by its assertion in court filings that it maintains no records of the incident.
A law enforcement official familiar with joint operations during protests said it would be typical for the FBI to hand over records of questioning to the lead agency -- in this case, the D.C. police.
D.C. police said authorities only recently found the logs of police responses to that day's events. That discovery came after three years of police assurances in federal court that no such records or logs existed showing the FBI's role.
The records turned up on the eve of a deposition in which a police records technician was to be questioned about the existence of a routine log that his office is responsible for maintaining during any mass protest in Washington.
Sgt. Joe Gentile, a D.C. police spokesman, referred questions to the D.C. attorney general's office.
Traci Hughes, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said the city's lawyers never intentionally misrepresent evidence to the court and come forward when discrepancies turn up.
"We have to rely upon information that the client gives us," Hughes said, adding that police turned over the log as soon as they learned it existed.
In November, as the Partnership for Civil Justice continued to try to get police records of the event, the FBI officials argued that the lawsuit against the agency should be dismissed. They said that the bureau had no relevant records and that if the FBI ever had any records, they had been disposed of when protesters' arrest records were expunged, or "they remain unidentifiable for other reasons." Justice Department attorneys noted, however, that questioning people in a criminal investigation was not improper.
In their lawsuit, the partnership and protesters said the FBI's political and religious questioning was "wholly unrelated to any legitimate activities of law enforcement" and violated their free speech rights under the First Amendment. They noted that some of the protesters had parked their van in the garage and were merely retrieving food.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.