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Justice Department Report Finds FBI Spied on American Protestors

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September 22, 2010

On Monday, we learned that yet another Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General (IG) report has found malfeasance in the FBI. This time, the IG found the bureau spying on American citizens engaged in protest and other activities protected by the First Amendment. These investigations led to several activists being inappropriately placed on terrorist watchlists.

The IG’s investigation was prompted by an ACLU Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which uncovered evidence in 2006 that the FBI was chilling political association by improperly investigating peaceful advocacy groups like Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

But here’s the kicker: IG Glenn Fine’s report concludes that the FBI was not spying on groups because of their political views. Rather, it was investigating them because they suspected the groups might commit crimes, and that was okay under the FBI rules that existed at the time.

Let’s think about that for a second: Everyone is capable of committing a crime. Therefore, if we follow the FBI’s logic, everyone can be subject to FBI investigation and possible inclusion on a terrorist watchlist. Or as my colleague Mike German, a former FBI agent, said, “In the world of possible crimes, why did the FBI choose these groups? Their vocal opposition to government policy probably had a lot to do with them getting selected.”

Chew on that for a bit.

Another “shocker” from last night’s IG report: low-bar guidelines to open investigations + less oversight = lots of improper investigations.

The report found FBI investigations were often opened based on “factually weak” or even “speculative” justifications, and were often kept open even after it was clear there was no criminal activity. We can attribute this very, very low bar to Attorney General guidelines for opening investigations, which were gradually weakened during the Bush administration. In 2002, the guidelines under then-Attorney General John Ashcroft required only the “possibility” of a federal crime.

This low-bar guideline led to super time-sucking, not-very-productive activities like the FBI infiltrating a peace group that was doing nothing more nefarious than handing out anti-war leaflets in downtown Pittsburgh.

Now, this kind of domestic spying doesn’t surprise anyone. Just last week, a domestic spying program in Pennsylvania that targeted gas drilling opponents was shut down after it was revealed to be improperly investigating the group as a terrorist threat. That was just another instance of more than 33 cases of domestic spying by U.S. law enforcement agencies.

So who’s spying on you? Find out by checking the map on our new Spyfiles page.

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