FBI Counterterrorism Unit Spies on Peaceful, Faith-Based Protest Group

Affiliate: ACLU of Georgia
May 4, 2006 12:00 am

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ACLU Releases Documents Showing Years of Spying on School of the Americas Watch

Illegal FBI / JTTF Spying >>

ATLANTA – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Georgia today released new evidence that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is using counterterrorism resources to spy on peaceful faith- and conscience-based advocacy groups. School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch) and its multinational faith-based network is the latest organization uncovered by the ACLU to have been subject to Federal Bureau of Investigation counterterrorism surveillance.

“We gather yearly to remember those killed by graduates of this school, and to call for a change in U.S. policy towards Latin America,” said Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch. “Our intentions are peaceful and our commitment unwavering as we nonviolently call attention to a school that has trained some of the worst human rights abusers in this hemisphere.”

Founded by Bourgeois in 1990, SOA Watch conducts research on the U.S. Army School of the Americas, now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and located at Fort Benning, Georgia. Each year the school trains hundreds of soldiers from Latin America, funded entirely by U.S. taxpayers. SOA Watch sponsors an annual vigil to call for the closure of the facility. Last year 19,000 people from around the country poured into Georgia to take part.

The documents released today show that FBI surveillance of these peaceful protests and acts of civil disobedience outside Fort Benning, once classified as “Routine” after 200,1 became “Priority” and subject to “Counterterrorism” monitoring. One memo dated October 2003 explicitly states that “The leaders of the SOA Watch have taken strides to impart upon the protest participants that the protest should be a peaceful event.”

“Clearly the FBI knew it was spying on a peaceful demonstration, activity protected by the First Amendment,” said Gerry Weber, ACLU of Georgia Legal Director. “That vital protection extends even to those who express controversial views.”

Judge G. Mallon Faircloth of the Middle District of Georgia federal court held in November 2001 that the demonstrators are “protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, to freely assemble and express their political views, which may and are, as a matter of fact at this point in time, contrary to the Congress of the United States, contrary to the United States Army, and contrary to the President’s opinion itself. So be it. That’s the American way.”

The documents come to the ACLU as a result of a national campaign to expose domestic spying by the FBI and other government agencies. The ACLU has filed Freedom of Information Act requests in 20 states on behalf of more than 150 organizations and individuals. In response to these requests, the government has released documents that reveal monitoring and infiltration by the FBI and local law enforcement, targeting political, environmental and anti-war groups.

In Senate Judiciary Committee hearings earlier this week, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) referenced many of the documents received by the ACLU while aggressively questioning the FBI Director Robert Mueller about spying on faith-based organizations.

Many other faith-based and peace groups affiliated with SOA Watch have also been targets of FBI spying, according to the ACLU. Every year Bourgeois tours the country to spread the word about the demonstration and often speaks to organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee, the Thomas Merton Center, Veterans for Peace and the Catholic Workers Group. The ACLU is uncertain if the organizations were spied on as a direct result of Bourgeois’ visit.

“From Quakers to monks to priests, the FBI is targeting innocent Americans for counterterrorism surveillance,” said Ann Beeson, Associate Legal Director of the national ACLU. “The quintessential American values of freedom and fairness are predicated on people being able to stand up and speak out when they feel they have seen an injustice. The FBI’s investigation into peaceful protests under the guise of counterterrorism shackles our ability to speak freely and violates the fundamental notion of what it means to be an American.”

More information about the ACLU’s Spy Files project including the documents released today as well as a profile of Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of School of the Americas Watch, is available online at: www.aclu.org/spyfiles

More information about the School of the Americas Watch is available online at: www.SOAW.org

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