The FBI, while waging a highly publicized war against terrorism, has spent resources gathering information on antiwar and environmental protesters and on activists who feed vegetarian meals to the homeless, the agency’s internal memos show.
For years, the FBI’s definition of terrorism has included violence against property, such as the window-smashing during the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. That definition has led FBI investigations to online discussion boards, organizing meetings and demonstrations of a wide range of activist groups. Officials say that international terrorists pose the greatest threat to the nation but that they cannot ignore crimes committed by some activists.
“It’s one thing to express an idea or such, but when you commit acts of violence in support of that activity, that’s where our interest comes in,” said FBI spokesman Bill Carter in Washington.
He stressed that the agency targeted individuals who committed crimes and did not single out groups for ideological reasons. He cited the recent arrest of environmental activists accused of firebombing an unfinished ski resort in Vail. “People can get hurt,” Carter said. “Businesses can be ruined.”
The FBI’s encounters with activists are described in hundreds of pages of documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act after agents visited several activists before the 2004 political conventions. Details have steadily trickled out over the last year, but newly released documents provide a fuller view of some FBI probes.
“Any definition of terrorism that would include someone throwing a bottle or rock through a window during an antiwar demonstration is dangerously overbroad,” ACLU staff attorney Ben Wizner said. “The FBI will have its hands full pursuing antiwar groups instead of truly dangerous organizations.”
ACLU attorneys say most violence during demonstrations is minor and is better handled by local police than federal counterterrorism agents. They say the FBI, which spied on antiwar and civil rights leaders during the 1960s, appears to be investigating activists solely for opposing the government.
“They don’t know where Osama bin Laden is, but they’re spending money watching people like me,” said environmental activist Kirsten Atkins. Her license plate number showed up in an FBI terrorism file after she attended a protest against the lumber industry in Colorado Springs in 2002.
ACLU attorneys acknowledge that the FBI memos are heavily redacted and contain incomplete portraits of some cases. Still, the attorneys say, the documents show that the FBI has monitored groups that were not suspected of any crime.
“It certainly seems they’re casting a net much more widely than would be necessary to thwart something like the blowing up of the Oklahoma City federal building,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado.
FBI officials respond that there is nothing improper about agents attending a meeting or demonstration.
“We have to be able to go out and look at things; we have to be able to conduct an investigation,” said William J. Crowley, a spokesman for the FBI in Pittsburgh. His field office filed a report -- released by the ACLU this month -- in which an agent described photographing Pittsburgh activists who were handing out fliers for a war protest. The report mentioned no potential violence or crimes.
Crowley said his office had been looking for a certain person in that case and had closed the file when it realized the suspect was not among those handing out the leaflets.
The murky connection that the federal government makes between some left-wing activist groups and terrorism was illustrated in a Justice Department presentation to a college law class this month.
An FBI counterterrorism official showed the class, at the University of Texas in Austin, 35 slides listing militia, neo-Nazi and Islamist groups. Senior Special Agent Charles Rasner said one slide, labeled “Anarchism,” was a federal analyst’s list of groups that people intent on terrorism might associate with.
The list included Food Not Bombs, which mainly serves vegetarian food to homeless people, and -- with a question mark next to it -- Indymedia, a collective that publishes what it calls radical journalism online. Both groups are among the numerous organizations affiliated with anarchists and anti-globalization protests, where there has been some violence.
Elizabeth Wagoner said she was one of the few students who objected to the groups’ inclusion on the list. “My friends do Indymedia,” she said. “My friends aren’t terrorists.”
Rasner said that he’d never heard of the two groups before and didn’t mean to condemn them. But he added that it made sense to worry about violent people emerging from anarchist networks -- “Any group can have somebody that goes south.”
Denver, where the ACLU fought a lengthy court battle with local police over its spying on political groups, has the most extensive records of encounters between the FBI and activists. Documents obtained by the ACLU there revealed how agents monitored the lumber industry demonstration, an antiwar march and an anarchist group that activists say was never formed.
In June 2002, environmental activists protested the annual meeting of the North American Wholesale Lumber Assn. in Colorado Springs. An FBI memo justified opening an inquiry into the protest because an activist training camp was to be held on “nonviolent methods of forest defense ... security culture, street theater and banner making.”
About 30 to 40 people attended the protest; three were arrested for trespassing while hanging a political banner. Colorado Springs police faxed the FBI a three-page list of demonstrators’ license plate numbers.
In a recent interview, Denver FBI spokeswoman Monique R. Kelso first said the training camp and protest would not have been enough to merit an anti-terrorism inquiry. But later she said that she wasn’t familiar with the details of the case and that the FBI opened cases when there was possible criminal activity.
The FBI’s Denver office also monitored a February 2003 antiwar demonstration in Colorado Springs. A bureau memo said that activists planned to block streets and an Air Force base entrance, and that a more “radical” faction had announced online that it would meet near the demonstration but break away for unspecified purposes. The memo said an agent would watch the breakaway group and report to local police and FBI agents monitoring the march.
FBI officials say there was additional information, which they cannot disclose, that justified a terrorism investigation of that protest. They stress that they have to be aggressive in investigating terrorism in the post-Sept. 11 world.
“There’s a lot of responsibility on the FBI,” said Joe Airey, head of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Denver. “We have a real obligation to make sure there are no additional terrorist acts on this soil.”
Denver-area activists said that since the surveillance documents became public, there had been a subtle chill, with some people avoiding protests for fear of ending up in an FBI file. Some activists think the FBI has been watching their groups to intimidate them.
“We’ve kind of gathered up our skirts and pulled in,” said Sarah Bardwell, who works for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group. Along with some activist roommates, she has also volunteered for Food Not Bombs.
“In our house, we don’t talk about politics anymore,” Bardwell said. “There’s been a toning down of everything we do.”
That change came after six FBI agents and Denver police officers visited her house in July 2004.
Months earlier, the FBI had obtained a flier advertising a meeting near Bardwell’s house to form a chapter of Anarchist Black Cross. That movement has two wings; one, according to the FBI, has been associated with “some of the most violent left-wing groups of the past 40 years.”
The organizer of the meeting, Dawn Rewolinski, said the prospective chapter would have been part of the movement’s other wing, which writes letters to prisoners. The chapter was never established, Rewolinski said. “All we did is eat some cookies and talk about various prisoners and realize we didn’t have enough money for a P.O. box.”
Nonetheless, FBI investigators believed a Denver chapter had been launched. They discovered that Anarchist Black Cross was affiliated with Food Not Bombs, and authorities ended up on Bardwell’s doorstep, asking about the anarchists’ plans for protests at the upcoming Democratic and Republican national conventions.
Kelso, the FBI spokeswoman, said there were documents that could not be released to the ACLU that showed good reasons for the government’s concern. She dismissed the idea that agents were spying on activists for political reasons.
“We don’t have enough agents,” Kelso said, “to go out there to monitor and surveil innocent people.”