A September 2010 report substantiates claims by civil liberties groups that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) improperly monitored activists between 2001 and 2006.  The Justice Department’s Inspector General  (IG) report concluded that FBI agents began investigating the activists for “factually weak” reasons and even placed individuals from some of the groups on terrorism watch lists. Although the report concluded that the groups investigated by the FBI were not selected solely because of their political opinions, it noted that “they had an impact on the First Amendment rights of those groups and their members.” [p. 188] The Inspector General recommended improvements in FBI procedures and a reassessment of its guidelines for investigations.

The IG’s Findings

The targeted groups were the Thomas Merton Center, Religious Society of Friends, Catholic Worker, Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and an individual Quaker peace activist. The report said at least one was targeted because of “its anti-war views” and found that FBI agents provided “speculative, after-the-fact rationalizations for their prior decisions to open investigations” that the Inspector General did not “find persuasive.” Michael Drohan, President of the anti-war Thomas Merton Center located in Pittsburgh, described the FBI’s actions as “perplexing,” and said, “To mention us in the same sentence as terrorism is an outrage. Everything we do and have done is to stop war, prevent war and promote economic and social justice.”

Other examples of improper tracking of activists cited in the report include an investigation on a nonviolent 2003 Greenpeace protest of an oil company kept open for over three years, and storing information about acts of civil disobedience done by Catholic Worker members in a domestic terrorism file.  The 209 page report also uncovered examples of FBI agents classifying activities such as vandalism and trespassing as terrorism-related. It also found that the FBI improperly classified some investigations of nonviolent civil disobedience under the “Acts of Terrorism classification.”

The report determined that the FBI misled Director Robert Mueller into giving inaccurate information to Congress. Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee at a May 2006 hearing, Mueller told committee members that the bureau had been monitoring a specific individual at a 2002 anti-war rally in Pittsburgh.   The IG report found no evidence the FBI had any information about any terrorism subject present at the rally. “We determined this version of events was not true,” said the report.

In part, the problems appear to stem from the 2008 Attorney General Guidelines and the FBI’s Domestic Investigative and Operational Guidelines (DIOG), which govern when criminal investigations can be opened and what information is stored. In assessing whether the investigations of these groups met the preconditions for investigations, the report said, “The applicable standard in the Guidelines for predication is low, especially for preliminary inquiries, which required only the ‘possibility’ of a federal crime.” [p. 186] It said FBI agents “sometimes did a poor job of documenting the predication for opening investigations, despite the fact that FBI policy required ‘strict compliance’ with the Attorney General’s Guidelines.” [p. 187] The report notes that these guidelines were relaxed in 2008.

The IG’s Recommendations

The IG report made several recommendations to prevent future violations, including:

  • Consider revising the AG’s Guidelines and DIOG regarding storage of First Amendment materials collected during investigations

  • Develop a better classification system to determine when First Amendment cases should be classified as terrorism,

  • Identify potential violations of federal law before opening investigations, and

  • Address false and misleading statements made to Congress and establish procedures to track the sources of facts given to Congress and the public

  • Conduct an inspection of recent domestic terrorism cases in its Pittsburgh Field Division office.

Michael German, ACLU senior policy counsel and a former FBI agent, said, “Unless the rules regulating the FBI are strengthened to safeguard the privacy of innocent Americans, we are all in danger of being spied on and added to terrorist watch lists for doing nothing more than attending a rally or holding up a sign.”