OIG: FBI Inappropriately Tracked Domestic Advocacy Groups

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FBI agents misled officials and the public, violated their own policy manual, used poor judgment, and engaged in sloppy police work when they investigated certain left-leaning, high-profile, domestic advocacy groups in the years immediately following 9/11, the Justice Department announced today following a four-year-long internal investigation by the Office of the Inspector General.

The official review of FBI conduct toward groups like PETA and Greenpeace and the Catholic Worker arose from revelations made public in 2005 that federal agents had used the threat of terrorism as a justification for tracking the legal, associative conduct of members of certain left-leaning groups. Concerned about the chilling impact of no-warrant domestic surveillance upon political advocacy groups whose members were exercising their constitutionally-protected free speech rights, Congressional Democrats and First Amendment activists had sought the probe. It began in 2006 and covered the the years 2001-2006 during the administration of President George W. Bush.

The 209-page report, signed by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, concluded that while none of the groups were targeted by the FBI for their views alone--one of the key allegations made by critics of the surveillance--the Bureau nevertheless engaged in tactics and strategies toward those groups and their members that were inappropriate, misleading, and in some cases counterproductive. Moreover, the OIG accused FBI witnesses of continuing to the present day to thwart a full and complete investigation into the matter by offering "incomplete and inconsistent accounts of events." An FBI spokesman said the Bureau "regrets that inaccurate information was provided."

The OIG report was sharply critical of what it considered 'troubling" work by the Bureau. It concluded, for example, that FBI Director Robert Mueller "unintentionally provided inaccurate testimony to Congress" in 2006 about an anti-war rally in Pittsburgh four years earlier. On that occasion, the report recapped, a probationary agent was sent to do some "make work" on a "slow work day" to look for "international terrorism subjects" at an anti-war rally in Pittsburgh sponsored by The Thomas Merton Center, a group which says it seeks to promote "peace and social justice." On Capitol Hill, in 2006, Mueller told lawmakers that the surveillance of the Merton Center was "an outgrowth of an FBI investigation and that the agent was "attempting to identify an individual who happened to be, we believed, in attendance at the rally."

The OIG Report, however, "found no evidence that the FBI had any information at the time of the event that any terrorism suspect would be present at the event. Instead, FBI personnel subsequently created two inconsistent and erroneous explanations of the surveillance of the anti-war rally, stating inaccurately that the surveillance was a response to information that certain persons of interest in international terrorism matters would be present. In fact, the FBI had no basis at the time to expect any subject or other person of interest in a terrorism investigation would be present." Mueller, the report indicated, was unaware that the information provided to him by his subordinates was inaccurate.

Fine and his Justice Department colleagues also criticized the FBI for its surveillance of the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The OIG report "questioned whether the FBI had a sufficient factual basis to open several of the cases as full investigations rather than as preliminary inquires, and we concluded with respect to one individual that the facts contained in the FBI communication initiating the case did not support opening any investigation at all." One investigation into PETA's activities that was opened was then improperly allowed to remain open for six years, the OIG concluded, long after it should have remained so.

In a case of domestic surveillance of individuals associated with The Catholic Worker, a group which states it is committed to "nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer and hospitality for the homeless, the OIG report concluded that the FBI inappropriately characterized" certain "nonviolent civil disobedience" as terrorism-related. "The information the FBI collected in one case," the OIG report indicates, "had no relationship to any 'violent activities' much less to terrorism." Similiarly, in a case involving an investigation into the environmental activist group Greenpeace, the OIG also concluded that the FBI had inappropriately labeled planned protest activities (in Texas against Exxon and Kimberly-Clark) as an "act of terrorism" case. Subjects in that case were put on a federal "watchlist" despite what the OIG called "scant basis for the FBI to suspect" they were planning acts of terrorism.

The OIG Report contained six "recommendations" to the FBI, including the suggestion that the FBI conduct its own internal investigation into its Pittsburgh Field Division to "assess the Division's compliance" with federal law, Attorney General guidelines, and FBI policies involving First Amendment issue. The OIG also called for the Bureau and the Justice Department to consider reinstating a "prohibition on retaining information from public events that is not related to potential criminal or terrorist activity."

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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