- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2010

The FBI investigated several advocacy groups on “factually weak” information, extended those inquiries “without adequate basis,” improperly retained information on some groups, and wrongly listed others under terrorism classifications, according to a report.

The Justice Department’s office of inspector general, in a 191-page report released Monday, said the misclassification resulted in some activists — including members of Greenpeace USA — being placed on government terrorist watch lists.

The report also states that because of inaccurate information given to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III about the circumstances of the FBI’s surveillance of an anti-war rally in Pittsburgh in 2002, the director unintentionally provided inaccurate testimony to Congress.

Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said Mr. Mueller wrongly testified that certain people of interest in international terrorism matters were expected at the rally sponsored by the Thomas Merton Center, a Pittsburgh-based peace activist group, when that was not the case.

The inquiry focused on FBI activities between 2001 and 2006 and also involved the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA); Greenpeace USA; the Catholic Worker, a pacifist organization; and Glenn Milner, a Quaker peace activist. The investigation began in response to congressional concerns that the FBI had improperly targeted domestic groups for investigation based on their exercise of First Amendment rights.

“The [inspector general’s] review did not indicate that the FBI targeted any of the groups for investigation on the basis of their First Amendment activities,” the report said. “However, the [office] concluded that the factual basis for opening some of the investigations of individuals affiliated with the groups was factually weak.

“The FBI also classified some investigations relating to nonviolent civil disobedience under its ‘Acts of Terrorism’ classification, which resulted in the watchlisting of subjects during the pendency of the investigation,” it said.

Some of the activists, as a result of the FBI investigations, were placed on the Violent Gang and Terrorist Organization File watch list.

In a response, FBI Deputy Director Timothy Murphy noted that the bureau had not targeted any groups for investigation on the basis of their First Amendment activities, but instead on concerns about potential criminal acts. He also said the FBI regretted that incorrect information had been given to Congress.

The report is not the first time Mr. Fine’s office has questioned FBI surveillance and investigative tactics. In March 2007, he said the bureau failed to create “sufficient controls and oversight” in its domestic hunt for terrorists, leading to “widespread and serious” misuse of its authority to gather telephone and travel records, e-mails and financial documents.

A year later, the inspector general’s office said that, despite assurances from Mr. Mueller that the FBI had enacted reforms to prevent more abuses, senior FBI counterterrorism officials improperly issued blanket national security letters for 3,860 telephone numbers to cover up the fact that the agency already improperly obtained the information.

The inspector general office’s newest report said the Merton Center incident “raised the most troubling issues in this review.”

According to the report, a probationary FBI agent in Pittsburgh was sent in November 2002 to an anti-war event sponsored by the Merton Center because it was “a slow day.” The report said the agent was told to look for international terrorists, although no information suggested that terrorists might be present.

The report said the agent was unable to identify any terrorism subjects, but photographed a woman of Middle Eastern descent to have something to show his supervisor.

Four years later, the agent’s report was released publicly in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. That prompted the FBI to say the agent had attended the event “for the sole purpose of determining the validity of information he received from another source establishing a link between an ongoing investigation and the [Merton Center].”

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