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Spying on PETA?

Sunday, October 3, 2010; A18

DID THE FBI impermissibly target U.S. advocacy groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Greenpeace because of their political views? The short answer, contained in a recently released and lengthy report: no.

The Justice Department's fiercely independent Office of Inspector General spent four years looking into the question of whether PETA and other groups were singled out for investigation for exercising their First Amendment rights. The report reviewed the FBI's activities from 2001 through 2006 and focused on probes of five groups and one individual. In none of the cases did the IG find that the subjects were targeted because of controversial political agendas. Instead, the report shows that the FBI homed in on certain individuals -- most of them affiliated with the organizations in question -- where there was reason to believe they might use violent means to, say, disrupt a free-trade conference or protest an energy facility. The IG concluded in the vast majority of instances that the FBI had enough evidence to proceed legitimately with these investigations.

Nevertheless, the FBI made mistakes. In one instance, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III inadvertently misinformed Congress about one of the probes after he was given erroneous information. A couple of times, the agency opened a formal investigation when there was enough evidence to proceed only preliminarily. This distinction matters because agents must get periodic approval to continue a preliminary investigation and they have fewer and more limited tools at their disposal than they would in a full-blown inquiry.

In some instances, these lapses led to investigations being open for years without justification. And in perhaps the most serious error, the FBI's unjustified decision to designate an investigation into the possible trespass of a military site under its "act of terrorism" classification resulted in members of a group being placed on a federal watch list.

The FBI has pledged to consider several of the IG's recommendations, including more stringent review of "acts of terrorism" designations. This is welcome. Although the report shows that the FBI has a solid track record of staying within legal limits, the agency and its overseers must remain vigilant that the fight against crime and terrorism does not infringe on Americans' civil liberties.

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