ACLU Denounces FBI Tactics Targeting Political Protesters

August 16, 2004 12:00 am

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Calls on Individuals to Report FBI Interrogations


NEW YORK-The American Civil Liberties Union today denounced the FBI’s use of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) to monitor, interrogate and suppress anti-war and other political protesters and called on individuals who have been targeted for investigation to come forward.

The ACLU issued the public statement after an article in today’s New York Times detailed actions taken by FBI agents in Missouri, Kansas and Colorado to spy on and interrogate activists in advance of the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

“The FBI’s intimidation and interrogation of peaceful protesters brings back eerie echoes of the days of J. Edgar Hoover,” said Anthony D. Romero, ACLU Executive Director. “Resources and funds established to fight terrorism should not be misused to target innocent Americans who have done nothing more than engage in lawful protest and dissent.”

According to reports from ACLU offices, law enforcement officials throughout the U.S. have been monitoring the daily activities of various activists they believe are planning to protest major national political events, including the upcoming Republican National Convention in New York, which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of protesters. In the days leading up to the Democratic National Convention, officials identifying themselves as JTTF agents made “visits” to the homes of several activists as well as their friends and family members.

In Missouri, three young men in their early 20’s were subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury on July 29, the same day they planned on protesting the Democratic convention. The men, who planned to drive to Boston with an activist group based in St. Louis, first realized they were being targeted by the FBI when agents visited the homes of their parents a week before the subpoenas. In addition to asking about easily accessible information such as current addresses, the agents also asked the parents for information on their sons’ political activities.

The very next day, agents visited the three men directly and asked them if they had any knowledge of individuals planning “criminally disorderly behavior” at the national conventions, the presidential debates, the election or any other event. According to the men, the surveillance increased after the visits, and conditions did not improve until after they contacted the ACLU.

“These young men are quite terrified by the experience of being targeted by the Joint Terrorism Task Force because of their protest activities,” said Denise Lieberman, Legal Director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “The FBI interrogations have had a chilling effect on free speech.”

JTTF officials conducted similar investigations on individuals in Denver and Fort Collins, Colorado, including 21-year-old Sarah Bardwell. Bardwell, an intern with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group dedicated to nonviolence, was approached at her home by four FBI agents and two Denver police officers asking questions consistent with those in Missouri: Are you planning to be involved in any criminal acts at the national conventions? Do you know anybody who is? Are you aware that if you assist or know anybody planning any criminal acts and do not report them, it’s a crime?

According to Bardwell, the officials at first jokingly told her and her housemates that they were there to do “community outreach,” but then clarified they were “doing some preventive measures and investigating.” Bardwell and her housemates believe they were targeted because of their past participation in protests, including anti-war demonstrations.

Last year, the Denver Police Department agreed to stop its practice of monitoring and recording the peaceful protest activities of local residents in a settlement reached in the ACLU’s landmark “Spy Files” lawsuit. Despite the settlement, Denver’s intelligence unit contributes two fulltime officers to the JTTF.

“These JTTF visits are an abuse of power, designed to intimidate these kids from exercising their constitutional right to protest government policies and associate with others who want to protest government policies,” said Mark Silverstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado.

The ACLU denounced JTTF tactics last November after the publication of a classified FBI intelligence memorandum, which gave police detailed instructions on how to target and monitor lawful political demonstrations under the rubric of fighting terrorism.

As reported in today’s Times, a previously undisclosed DOJ legal opinion condoned the controversial tactics outlined in the memorandum. The opinion was issued in response to an internal complaint by an employee who charged that the tactics blurred the line between lawfully protected speech and illegal activity.

“It is troubling that the FBI continues to advocate spying on peaceful protesters,” said the ACLU’s Romero. “But even protesters who engage in civil disobedience or other disruptive acts should not be treated like potential terrorists.”

The ACLU said that there has been a noticeable increase in domestic spying on political protesters in recent years. One of the most famous cases is the infiltration of the anti-war group Peace Fresno by a member of the Fresno County Sheriff Department’s Anti-Terrorism unit in 2003. Peace Fresno discovered one of its members had actually been a government agent through an obituary published after his death in a motorcycle accident. The incident is portrayed in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 as an example of civil liberties violations in the post-September 11th climate.

The ACLU said it is continuing to monitor incidents of FBI intimidation and interrogation.

To read more about the FBI memo targeting protesters, go to /node/11431

To read the DOJ opinion condoning the memorandum, go to

To read more about the ACLU’s work to protect protest rights, see /FreeSpeech/FreeSpeechlist.cfm?c=86

To read more about the ACLU of Colorado’s “Spy Files” case, go to

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