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FOIA: Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF)
ACLU Launches Nationwide Effort to Expose Illegal FBI Spying on Political and Religious Groups
NEW YORK -- According to new documents released today by the American Civil Liberties Union, the FBI is using counterterrorism resources to monitor and infiltrate domestic political organizations that criticize business interests and government policies, despite a lack of evidence that the groups are engaging in or supporting violent action.
The ACLU said that the documents released today on Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) show the FBI expanding the definition of “domestic terrorism” to include citizens and groups that participate in lawful protests or civil disobedience.
“The FBI should use its resources to investigate credible threats to national security instead of spending time tracking Americans who criticize government policy, or monitoring groups that have not broken the law,” said Ann Beeson, Associate Legal Director of the ACLU. “Labeling law abiding groups and their members ‘domestic terrorists’ is not only irresponsible, it has a chilling effect on the vibrant tradition of political dissent in this country.”
The documents were obtained by the ACLU after the organization filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to discover whether the FBI’s partnerships with local law enforcement in Joint Terrorism Task Forces has resulted in increased surveillance of political and religious activity.
Among the documents released today were more than 100 pages of FBI files on PETA. Multiple documents indicate ongoing surveillance of PETA-related meetings and activities, including a “Vegan Community Project” event at the University of Indiana during which the group distributed vegetarian starter kits to students and faculty, an animal rights conference in Washington, DC that was open to the public, and a planned protest of Cindy Crawford’s decision to become a llama fur spokesperson.
The ACLU said that FBI surveillance of mainstream organizations involved in public education campaigns has allowed the bureau to maintain files with names and other information on law-abiding Americans who support or participate in events organized by the groups. One file released by the FBI in response to a request for ADC’s records included a contact list for students and peace activists who participated in a 2002 conference at Stanford University, which focused on ending U.S. sanctions against Iraq.
“The FBI should be investigating real terrorists, not monitoring controversial ideas,” said Ben Wizner, an ACLU staff attorney. “Americans shouldn’t have to fear that by protesting the treatment of animals or participating in non-violent civil disobedience, they will be branded as 'eco-terrorists' in FBI records.”
The ACLU said that some of the documents suggest infiltration by undercover “sources” at animal rights meetings and conferences. One highly redacted “Domestic Terrorism Operations Unit” document suggests that the FBI is using PETA’s interns for surveillance, while others describe attempts to locate and interview “several former disgruntled PETA employees.” Similarly, one cryptic e-mail kept in a Greenpeace file describes a source who “offers a unique opportunity to gain intelligence on activists who show a clear predisposition to violate the law.”
At times, the documents show aggressive attempts by the FBI to link PETA, Greenpeace and other mainstream organizations to activists associated with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) or Earth Liberation Front (ELF), said the ACLU. PETA, in particular, is repeatedly and falsely singled out as a “front” for militant organizations although in at least one document released today the FBI appears to acknowledge that it has no evidence to back up such assertions.
“These documents show the erosion of freedom of association and speech that Americans have taken for granted and which set us apart from oppressive countries,” said Jeff Kerr, General Counsel for PETA. “McCarthyist tactics used against PETA and other groups that speak out against cruelty to animals and exploitive corporate and government practices are un-American, unconstitutional and against the interests of a healthy democracy.”
The documents released by the ACLU also include FBI observances on supposed Communist leanings of the Catholic Workers Group (CWG). In an e-mail to the counterterrorism unit, an unidentified official wrote, “the Catholic Workers advocated peace with a Christian and semi-communistic ideology.” In another document, an agent writes, “Based on the author’s interpretation of comments made by various CWG protestors, CWG also advocates a communist distribution of resources.”
ACLU affiliates in 20 states have filed similar requests on behalf of more than 150 groups and individuals. Earlier this month, the ACLU of Colorado revealed that the FBI had tracked the names, license plate numbers and vehicle registration information of participants at a peaceful protest of the North American Wholesale Lumber Association in Colorado Springs in June 2002.
To view the FBI documents released by the ACLU, go to: www.aclu.org/spyfiles.