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Watchdog Faults FBI for `Factually Weak' Basis for
Investigating Activists
by Marian Wang
ProPublica
September 20, 2010
http://www.propublica.org/blog/item/watchdog-faults-fbi-for-factually-weak-basis-for-investigating-activists


The FBI in recent years opened investigations into some
U.S. activists with little basis, unjustifiably extended
the duration of the probes, improperly retained
information about activist groups in its files, and
classified its investigations of "nonviolent civil
disobedience" as investigations into "acts of
terrorism," according to a report released today [1]
(PDF) by the Justice Department's Inspector General.

The FBI activities reviewed by the Justice Department
took place from 2001 to 2006, and involved groups
including the Thomas Merton Center (a Pittsburgh social
justice center), People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals (PETA), Greenpeace, The Catholic Worker
(communities of religious pacifists) and a Quaker peace
activist.

The report by the Justice Department watchdog didn't
find that the FBI  targeted these groups on the basis of
their free speech activities - which would be a serious
violation [2] of FBI guidelines - but did fault the
agency for other reasons, most notably a "factually
weak" basis for opening investigations.

 "FBI agents and supervisors sometimes provided the
 [Office of the Inspector General] with speculative,
 after-the-fact rationalizations for their prior
 decisions to open investigations that we did not find
 persuasive," the report said.

The report also found that that the FBI unnecessarily
classified its probes as domestic terrorism
investigations, even though some of the potential crimes
were trespassing or vandalism - acts not normally
considered to be terrorism. This classification resulted
in several individuals improperly being placed on
terrorism watchlists.

The Inspector General also found that the FBI gave
"inaccurate and misleading" explanations to justify its
attendance at a 2002 rally against the Iraq war
organized by the Merton Center.

The FBI's director, Robert Mueller, told a Senate
committee in 2006 that his agents at the antiwar rally
"were not concerned about the political dissent," but
were attempting to identify "persons of interest"
expected to attend the rally.

That testimony wasn't supported by an "extremely
troubling" FBI document about the incident, the report
noted. The document "described no legitimate purpose for
the FBI to attend the event" and "supplied no evidence
or even suspicion that any criminal or terrorist element
was associated with the Merton Center or likely to be
present at the event," the report said.

The FBI, responding in an appendix to the report,
acknowledged the inaccuracies. It said that incorrect
information was provided to the FBI director, who then
testified inaccurately before Congress.

"The FBI regrets that incorrect information was provided
regarding this matter," Deputy Director Timothy P.
Murphy wrote in a letter to Inspector General Glenn
Fine.

The surveillance of activists -  both on the state level
as well as the federal level - has been a recent topic
of concern. As we've noted, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed
Rendell, a Democrat, apologized last week for a state
contract [3] with an anti-terrorism consulting firm,
which produced a document calling opponents to gas
drilling "environmental extremists" and flagged these
and other activists as potential threats to the state's
security.

The document's section about environmental extremism, as
we've noted [4], cited an FBI bulletin as the source of
the information. In the document, the FBI assessed with
"medium confidence" the threat that environmental
extremists posed to the energy sector. (FBI
"assessments," under 2008 guidelines from the attorney
general, are the agency's "lowest level of investigative
activity," the Inspector General report said.)

The FBI has not responded to our request for comment.

_____________________________________________

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