- 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].”

The inspector general’s report said Mr. Mueller told Congress in May 2006 that the surveillance was an “outgrowth of an FBI investigation” and the agent was “attempting to identify an individual who happened to be, we believed, in attendance at the rally.” The FBI declined to provide additional information, saying the investigation “is still ongoing.”

The report concluded that the FBI was not targeting the Merton Center or its members for investigation because of its anti-war advocacy, but because the agent had been sent to the event “pursuant to an ill-conceived make-work assignment given to a probationary agent on a slow workday.”

The report also noted that a Feb. 23, 2003, FBI memo “created the inaccurate impression that the Merton Center was the subject of an international terrorism investigation.” In fact, the report said, the FBI’s Pittsburgh office did not open an investigation of the Merton Center and the memo was neither approved nor disseminated outside the Pittsburgh office.

Others targeted by the FBI included:

• PETA in Norfolk, Va., in which the inspector general’s report said the FBI’s decision to continue the matter as a full investigation contributed to the case remaining open for six years. The report said the length of the investigation was inconsistent with FBI policy requiring that an investigation with potential impact on First Amendment activity “not be permitted to extend beyond the point at which its underlying justification no longer exists.”

Greenpeace, in which the inspector general’s office said the FBI conducted a full investigation of the group’s planned protests against Exxon Mobil and Kimberly-Clark, but “articulated little or no basis for suspecting a violation of any federal criminal statute, as opposed to a state or local crime, such as trespassing.” The report said that, because the three-year probe was classified as a terrorism case, the subjects were placed on a federal watch list and information was collected on their travel and protest activities.

• The Catholic Worker, in which the report said it found two FBI documents in a domestic terrorism file that contained information about nonviolent civil disobedience by Catholic Worker members that involved the peaceful trespass on a military facility. The report questioned the FBI’s targeting of lawful civil disobedience and described its classification of the inquiry as a terrorism case as “inappropriate, because the acts in question did not include the use of violence or force.”

Glenn Milner, a Seattle Quaker and peace activist who was placed “under watch” by the FBI for what the inspector general’s office called protest activities carried out at the 2003 Seafair festival in Seattle. The report said investigators found no evidence that the FBI investigated the Quakers as a group, or any individuals identified in FBI documents as Quakers, for their protest activities.

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