Wednesday, January 11, 2006
New documents released to the press in December 2005 show federal agencies have been infiltrating and conducting surveillance on a wide range of nonprofits, in what appears to be a policy of treating lawful dissent as an act of terrorism. An NBC story revealed that the Pentagon has used a program meant to protect U.S. military installations, in order to spy on peace and other groups. In addition, FBI files released as part of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in December 2004 show investigations of groups concerned with everything from poverty relief to the environment.
On Dec. 14, 2005 NBC published a story based on a 400-page Dept. of Defense (DOD) document that lists more than 1,500 "suspicious incidents" from the previous year. These included a number of peaceful nonprofit activities, such as a Fort Worth, FL Quaker group planning a protest of military recruitment in area high schools. The DOD document referenced over four dozen anti-war meetings and protests. DOD deemed 24 of these incidents as no threat to national security, but did not delete them from its Talon database.
The information in Talon is sent to the Counterintelligence Field Activity agency (CIFA), whose secrecy has troubled some members of Congress. Rep. Jane Harmon (D-CA), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, has raised concerns with CIFA and met with committee chair Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) regarding those concerns. However, the details of that meeting were not made public.
After it came to light that Talon had been used to monitor peaceful groups, the Pentagon ordered a review of the program. The Washington Post reported on Dec. 15, 2005 that the Pentagon's preliminary review concluded the Talon database had not been maintained correctly, quoting a senior official, who explained, "You can also make the argument that these things should never have been put in the database in the first place until they were confirmed as threats." The DOD surveillance, however, does not appear to have been inadvertent. A DOD briefing document, cited in the NBC story, indicated a policy of surveillance of protest groups, stating, "We have noted increased communication and encouragement between protest groups using the Internet..."
The FBI's use of Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) resources to spy on domestic groups engaging in peaceful protest has come to light through litigation filed by the ACLU. OMB Watch reported on several instances of surveillance of peace, civil rights and environmental groups last year, based on documents obtained by the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act. (See FBI Documents Reveal Further Spying on Peace, Civil Rights Groups, OMB Watcher [Sept. 6, 2005].)
Similar incidents were revealed in Dec. 2005. First, the ACLU of Colorado announced release of documents showing the FBI had tracked the names and license plate numbers of people that attended a protest at the North American Wholesale Lumber Association's convention in Colorado Springs in June 2002. The documents released to the ACLU showed that JTTF recommended a domestic terrorism investigation of people planning to participate in a training on nonviolent protest.
The Colorado documents also revealed a FBI investigation of the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace, because the group's website promoted a Feb. 2003 anti-war demonstration in Colorado Springs. According to the ACLU report, the FBI conducted surveillance of a car pool meeting place for people attending the event. Of the incidents, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein explained, "The FBI is unjustifiably treating nonviolent public protest as though it were domestic terrorism. The FBI's misplaced priorities threaten to deter legitimate criticism of government policy while wasting taxpayer resources that should be directed to investigating real terrorists."
Still more ACLU documents were released later that month. The New York Times reported that over 2,300 pages of FBI material revealed surveillance of a wide variety of groups, including the Indianapolis Vegan Project, the antipoverty group Catholic Workers, Greenpeace, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The documents showed that, in addition to surveillance, the FBI has used informants within targeted groups to collect information.
The FBI countered that it does not target organizations because of their beliefs. Ann Beson, ACLU associate legal director, however, argues the Bush administration "has engaged every possible agency, from the Pentagon to NSA to the FBI, to engage in spying on Americans," calling the current climate reminiscent of "the days of J. Edgar Hoover."