Your F.B.I. is on the job – on the land, on the sea, in the air – and wasting your tax dollars to check up on people who are hell-bent to exercise their First Amendment rights:
F.B.I. officials are urging agents to canvass their communities for information about planned disruptions aimed at the convention and other coming political events, and they say they have developed a list of people who they think may have information about possible violence. They say the inquiries, which began last month before the Democratic convention in Boston, are focused solely on possible crimes, not on dissent, at major political events.
But some people contacted by the F.B.I. say they are mystified by the bureau’s interest and felt harassed by questions about their political plans.
“The message I took from it,” said Sarah Bardwell, 21, an intern at a Denver antiwar group who was visited by six investigators a few weeks ago, “was that they were trying to intimidate us into not going to any protests and to let us know that, ‘hey, we’re watching you.'”
The unusual initiative comes after the Justice Department, in a previously undisclosed legal opinion, gave its blessing to controversial tactics used last year by the F.B.I in urging local police departments to report suspicious activity at political and antiwar demonstrations to counterterrorism squads. The F.B.I. bulletins that relayed the request for help detailed tactics used by demonstrators – everything from violent resistance to Internet fund-raising and recruitment.
In an internal complaint, an F.B.I. employee charged that the bulletins improperly blurred the line between lawfully protected speech and illegal activity. But the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, in a five-page internal analysis obtained by The New York Times, disagreed.
The office, which also made headlines in June in an opinion – since disavowed – that authorized the use of torture against terrorism suspects in some circumstances, said any First Amendment impact posed by the F.B.I.’s monitoring of the political protests was negligible and constitutional.
The opinion said: “Given the limited nature of such public monitoring, any possible ‘chilling’ effect caused by the bulletins would be quite minimal and substantially outweighed by the public interest in maintaining safety and order during large-scale demonstrations.”
Protest leaders and civil rights advocates who have monitored the recent interrogations said they believed at least 40 or 50 people, and perhaps many more, had been contacted by federal agents about demonstration plans and possible violence surrounding the conventions and other political events.
“This kind of pressure has a real chilling effect on perfectly legitimate political activity,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, where two groups of political activists in Denver and a third in Fort Collins were visited by the F.B.I. “People are going to be afraid to go to a demonstration or even sign a petition if they justifiably believe that will result in your having an F.B.I. file opened on you.”
The issue is a particularly sensitive one in Denver, where the police agreed last year to restrictions on local intelligence-gathering operations after it was disclosed that the police had kept files on some 3,000 people and 200 groups involved in protests.
But the inquiries have stirred opposition elsewhere as well.
In New York, federal agents recently questioned a man whose neighbor reported he had made threatening comments against the president. He and a lawyer, Jeffrey Fogel, agreed to talk to the Secret Service, denying the accusation and blaming it on a feud with the neighbor. But when agents started to question the man about his political affiliations and whether he planned to attend convention protests, “that’s when I said no, no, no, we’re not going to answer those kinds of questions,” said Mr. Fogel, who is legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. [New York Times]
Kind of makes you want to ask the F.B.I., “Hey, how’s that search for the anthrax mailer going?” or “Had any luck running down the people who leaked Valerie Plame’s name to Bob Novak?” or “Got any leads on the folks who hacked in to the Democratic congressional computer network?”