Did the FBI launch a surveillance program targeting anti-war groups and environmental activists during the Bush era? Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine has issued a report looking into that question. While he puts the blandest possible read on what he discovers, the results are troubling just the same. The Los Angeles Times’s Richard Serrano reports:
FBI agents improperly opened investigations into Greenpeace and several other domestic advocacy groups after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and put the names of some of their members on terrorist watch lists based on evidence that turned out to be “factually weak,” the Justice Department said Monday. However, the internal review by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine did not conclude that the FBI purposely targeted the groups or their members, as many civil liberties advocates had charged, after antiwar rallies and other protests were held during the administration of President George W. Bush. But Fine said the FBI tactics appeared “troubling” in singling out some of the domestic groups for investigations that lasted up to five years, and were extended “without adequate basis.” He also questioned why the FBI continued to maintain investigative files against the groups.
“In several cases there was little indication of any possible federal crimes,” Fine said. “In some cases, the FBI classified some investigations relating to nonviolent civil disobedience under its ‘acts of terrorism’ classification.” In addition to the environmental group Greenpeace, the FBI investigated People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, and the antiwar groups Catholic Worker and Thomas Merton Center.
These reports fit into an old pattern. The FBI has a long history of being deployed abusively against organizations critical of the administration in Washington, particularly anti-war activists and pacifist church groups. Fine’s report is, as usual, balanced and very careful. He concludes that he came up with no evidence to suggest that suppression of free speech rights was on the FBI’s agenda, and that conclusion is warranted by the report as a whole. On the other hand, Fine focuses sharply on the on-the-ground work, and he’s skipped over considerable evidence pointing to something more systematic and directed from the top.
In the years right after 9/11, Bush Administration Justice Department officials used the phrase “environmental terrorists” to refer to radical environmental organizations like the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front—which were in fact linked to some spectacular acts of vandalism and arson. An effort was made to portray environmentalists as a community that included dangerous domestic terrorists. At this time, Representative George Nethercutt of Washington introduced his Agroterrorism Prevention Bill, which exploited the meme and tried to rope violent environmental activists into the same legal standards applied to terrorists. It may very well be that the FBI was deployed in an effort to develop an evidence base to support this political rhetoric. It’s unsurprising that it came up empty-handed. Greenpeace, while aggressive and innovative in its advocacy techniques, is far removed from organizations like ALF and ELF. In the meantime, the effort to label environmental activists as “ecoterrorists” has lost whatever political momentum it once had. But the FBI surveillance of Greenpeace may show how easily Washington can use law-enforcement resources for a dubious political campaign designed to isolate and target groups with a different perspective.