New Documents Show FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force Targeting Peaceful Protest Activity in Colorado
DENVER -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado today released documents revealing that the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) is tracking information on peaceful protesters, including names and license plate numbers.
The ACLU, which obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, said the FBI is wasting resources and threatening First Amendment rights by wrongfully equating nonviolent protest with domestic terrorism.
"These documents confirm that the names and license plate numbers of several dozen peaceful protesters who committed no crime are now in a JTTF file marked 'counterterrorism,'" said ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein. "This kind of surveillance of First Amendment activities has serious consequences. Law-abiding Americans may be reluctant to speak out when doing so means that their names will wind up in an FBI file."
Two of the three FBI reports released today concern nonviolent protests conducted by critics of the timber industry's forestry practices at a convention of the North American Wholesale Lumber Association (NAWLA) in Colorado Springs in June 2002. In the reports, the JTTF recommended that the FBI open a counterterrorism investigation on activists who were planning nonviolence training for people interested in participating in the protests.
Several dozen persons peacefully expressed their views during the convention. A handful were arrested for trespass when they hung a banner from the tower of the convention hotel, but the overwhelming majority were never accused or even suspected of this minor nonviolent offense or any other violation of law. After the protests were over, however, the JTTF obtained and included in the file a list of license plate numbers of the participants and the corresponding vehicle registration information, according to documents obtained by the ACLU.
The ACLU's Silverstein criticized the JTTF report, stating that nonviolence training has nothing to do with terrorism.
"The names of Americans who were never accused or suspected of even minor criminal activity are now in the files of the FBI, solely because they exercised their constitutionally protected right to peacefully express their opinions in a public protest."
According to the ACLU, the FBI refused to turn over the list of plate numbers that were originally attached to the report on the NAWLA protests. Nevertheless, the ACLU had already obtained those three pages during litigation over the "Spy Files" maintained by the Denver Police Department's Intelligence Unit. The first page, a fax cover sheet, indicates that Denver police detective Tom Fisher, who worked full time for the JTTF, asked for and obtained the list from the Colorado Springs Police Department. Responding to earlier press inquiries about this document, an FBI spokesperson confirmed that Agent Fisher obtained the list of names and license plates in the course of his JTTF duties.
The third FBI report released today was obtained by the ACLU on behalf of the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace. That report confirms that the FBI opened a "domestic terrorism" investigation after reading Web sites promoting an antiwar demonstration in Colorado Springs in February 2003. The report indicates that the FBI planned to conduct surveillance in Denver at the location where participants gathered to car pool to the demonstration in Colorado Springs. It also indicates that Nextel provided Web site information to the author of the FBI report.
Although the report is full of references to "domestic terrorism" and "acts of terrorism," there is nothing in the FBI report that provides any grounds for suspecting that any of the Web sites listed were promoting acts of violence. Rather, the ACLU said, the Web sites in question were promoting a peace demonstration.
"The FBI is unjustifiably treating nonviolent public protest as though it were domestic terrorism," Silverstein said. "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."
The national ACLU and many of its affiliates have filed similar FOIA requests on behalf of more than 100 groups and individuals. The FOIAs seek two kinds of information: 1) the actual FBI files of groups and individuals targeted for speaking out or practicing their faith; and, 2) information about how the practices and funding structure of the JTTFs may be encouraging rampant and unwarranted spying.
The reports released today are available at www.aclu-co.org/spyfiles/JTTFdocuments.htm
More information on the national ACLU effort is online at www.aclu.org/spyfiles