Source: Reuters,Mar 15, 2006
FBI anti-terrorism agents spied on a US peace group simply because it opposed the Iraq war, part of an "unprecedented campaign" to spy on innocent citizens, the American Civil Liberties Union says.
FBI documents acquired under the Freedom of Information Act and provided to reporters show the FBI conducted surveillance of the Pittsburgh-based Thomas Merton Centre for Peace and Justice at anti-war demonstrations and leaflet distributions in 2002 and 2003.
One of the FBI documents, unveiled at a news conference by the two groups, carried the headline "International Terrorism Matters" and referred to the FBI’s work with an anti-terrorism task force that includes several agencies.
Another FBI document said the Pittsburgh Joint Terrorism Task Force had learned that "The Thomas Merton Center … has been determined to be an organization which is opposed to the United States’ war with Iraq."
A separate document noted, "One female leaflet distributor who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, inquired if (confidential source’s name withheld) was an FBI agent. No other TMC participants appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent."
FBI officials in Pittsburgh said the bureau was engaged in legitimate investigations, and in one case dropped the probe upon determining a person photographed at one demonstration was not whom they were looking for.
"We had a legitimate purpose for being there," FBI special agent Bill Crowley said, referring to a November 2002 protest.
The ACLU said the spying fit a pattern of federal abuse following the Sept. 11 attacks. U.S. President George W. Bush has generally received high marks from the public for taking a strong hand in security matters.
"From the FBI to the Pentagon to the National Security Agency, this administration has embarked on an unprecedented campaign to spy on innocent Americans," Ann Beeson, associate legal director of the ACLU, said in a statement.
Leaflet distribution observed
An FBI memo dated November 2002 said the Merton Center "holds daily leaflet distribution activities in downtown Pittsburgh and is currently focused on its opposition to the potential war in Iraq." The war began in March 2003.
The memo called the Merton Center "a left-wing organization advocating, among many political causes, pacifism."
The FBI acknowledged the report sounded as if it were reporting on the activities of an anti-war group, but said "such a characterization would be factually misleading."
The agent was pursuing leads "from another source possibly establishing a link between an ongoing investigation and the group engaging in anti-war protests. Finding no such link, he terminated his surveillance," the FBI said in a statement.
Although previously disclosed documents showed the FBI was retaining files on anti-war groups, the ACLU said these documents were the first to show conclusively that the FBI targeted the Merton Center because of its pacifism.
"We know that this surveillance is about the political views of the Thomas Merton Center because that’s what the documents say," said Mary Catherine Roper, an attorney with the Pittsburgh ACLU.
Merton Centre director Jim Kleissler said his group filed the request for FBI documents because its members believed they were being spied on by the FBI in 2002 and 2003 while they protested against the imminent war in Iraq.
Kleissler said he was not particularly surprised to find that his group was being investigated by the FBI "but we were surprised that it was so closely tied to terrorism."