FBI misled Justice about spying on peace group
There was a time in the 1960s when the FBI’s illegal surveillance of left-wing groups seemed, and maybe even was, sinister if not broadly menacing. Parts of today’s Justice Department report on its more recent activities, however, evoke that old saw about history repeating itself as farce.
The Inspector General’s report covered a number of FBI targets following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: an antiwar rally in Pittsburgh; a Catholic peace magazine; a Quaker activist; and members of the environmental group Greenpeace as well as of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA.
My favorite story was about the rookie FBI agent who was dispatched to an antiwar rally in Pittsburgh with a camera and told to look for terrorism suspects.
It was “a slow work day,” the IG report said -- the Friday after Thanksgiving 2002.
The “possibility that any useful information would result from this make-work assignment was remote,” the report said. The sponsor of the rally was the Thomas Merton Center, named for the Catholic priest who advocated pacifism and interfaith dialogue.
“The agent was unable to identify any terrorism subjects at the event, but he photographed a woman in order to have something to show his supervisor,” the IG report says. “He told us he had spoken to a woman leafletter at the rally who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, and that she was probably the person he photographed.”
The agent’s report, described as “results of investigation of Pittsburgh antiwar activity,” characterized the Merton Center as a “left-wing organization advocating, among many political causes, pacificism [sic],” according to the IG report.
When the FBI activity surfaced in 2006, it caused a hullabaloo, of course. Activists raised the specter of a return to the bad old days, when the FBI was breaking into antiwar offices and fabricating poison-pen letters to create rivalries in the Black Panther Party, among others, in its infamous COINTEL program, which was designed to wreak havoc in left-wing groups.
The rookie agent’s post-Thanksgiving sojourn seemed nothing like that.
And compared with other, far more worrying invasions of civil rights by the government, such as its ongoing monitoring of Americans’ telephone calls and e-mails, it seems merely hapless.
But what came next is not.
According to the Justice Department’s report, FBI officials, including the Pittsburgh office's top lawyer, engaged in distinctly COINTELPRO-style tactics after the American Civil Liberties Union sued for the release of documents relating to the surveillance.
Boiled down to their essence, those tactics involved officials generating post-dated “routing slips” and other paper to create a terrorism threat that didn’t exist.
Or as the inspector general put it, the FBI's elaborate, “after-the-fact reconstruction” of the Pittsburgh events, designed to fabricate a counter-terrorism rationale for the rookie’s surveillance mission, “was not corroborated by any witnesses or contemporaneous documents.”
It was on the basis of their fabrication, moreover, that FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III gave “inaccurate and misleading” testimony to Congress, the IG said.
The IG’s recounting of the Pittsburgh events is lengthy and meticulous.
The FBI, however, continues to deny that bureau officials engaged in an elaborate and deliberate scheme to deceive investigators, Congress and the pubic about what was, in retrospect, one rookie agent's minor, misdirected surveillance of the Pittsburgh antiwar demonstration.
“Nobody," the FBI says, "had a motive to provide an intentionally misleading account of it.”
The IG found the agency's explanations, however, "unconvincing."
If the FBI punished anyone in its ranks, moreover, the IG makes no mention of it.
Now that is a return to the bad old days.
| September 20, 2010; 2:35 PM ET
Categories: Intelligence, Justice/FBI, Lawandcourts | Tags: Greenpeace, PETA, Quakers, Robert S. Mueller III, Thomas Merton
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