The Thomas Merton Center, located in a humble storefront in Pittsburgh, is an inviting social justice space where visitors can pick up some pamphlets on non-violent civil disobedience or hold a community potluck. The center, named for an activist and Trappist monk, proudly promotes pacifism, but that didn’t prevent the FBI from spying on Merton Center activists in 2002, branding them terrorists and then later lying about it to Congress.
That was one of the critical findings of a report released Monday by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine. The report said that between 2001 and 2006, the FBI also kept tabs on a Seattle antiwar activist as well as individuals affiliated with Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Catholic Workers and Quakers. The agency improperly placed these activists on terrorist watch lists, according to the report.
The report found that the FBI gave inaccurate and misleading information to Congress and the public in 2006 when it claimed that an agent who spied on an anti-war rally organized by Thomas Merton Center activists was investigating individuals with possible links to terrorism.
The surveillance of a Merton center rally in November 2002, which consisted of antiwar activists distributing information in a public space, was “an ill-conceived project on a slow work day,” according to the report. The FBI’s surveillance of the rally was initially revealed via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which subsequently sparked Fine’s probe.
The report said an agent asked his superior for something to do on a slow day of work, and he was directed to monitor the rally for potential terrorism suspects. Fine’s investigation found that the agent’s “make work” assignment had nothing to do with any specific terrorism investigation.
But that’s not what the media and Congress were told in 2006 when Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) questioned FBI Director Robert Mueller as to whether his agency was using its enhanced counterterrorism capabilities to spy on Merton Center activists and other law-abiding Americans because of their opposition to the Iraq war.
In his testimony, Mueller said the agent who attended the Merton Center rally was there to identify an individual with potential links to terrorism. The FBI also asserted this in a press release.
The inspector general’s investigation, however, revealed that the agent who attended the rally was not tracking specific individuals, although the FBI operatives in Pittsburgh made up two conflicting stories about a local Muslim activist and a “Person B” to cover-up their decision to spy on the activists.
The report concluded that the FBI did not investigate the Thomas Merton Center based on its antiwar activism, rather the surveillance was based on the poor judgment of agents. Moreover, the investigation found that a 2003 memo circulated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force created an “inaccurate representation” that the Merton Center was the subject of an international terrorism investigation.
The report was harshly critical of the FBI for planting an informant to collect information on the Pittsburgh Organizing Group (POG), a Merton Center affiliate and anarchist group. Fine concluded that the informant’s attendance in POG meetings between 2004 and 2005 had nothing to do with trying to obtain intelligence about terrorism and was likely a violation of the Privacy Act” and the “First Amendment rights of individuals.”
“The FBI has a long history of abusing its national security surveillance powers, reaching back to the smear campaign waged by the American government against Dr. Martin Luther King,” said Michael German, ACLU Senior Policy Counsel and former FBI agent. “Americans peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights were able to become targets of FBI surveillance because spying guidelines that were established after the shameful abuses of the 60s and 70s were loosened in 2002. Unfortunately, they were loosened again in 2008, even after this abuse was uncovered.”
The inspector general’s report recommends that the FBI tighten investigative guidelines review the difference between First Amendment-related cases, like those involving non-violent civil disobedience, and cases involving actual terrorist threats. The ACLU, however, is pushing for more substantial changes.
“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,” German said.