NEW YORK (Reuters) – The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been collecting information on the tactics, training and organization of antiwar demonstrators, The New York Times reported in Sunday editions.
In a report sourced to several interviews as well as a confidential bureau memorandum, the Times said that the law enforcement agency has also advised local officials that they should report to counterterrorism squads any suspicious activity at protests.
The memorandum, which was circulated to local law enforcement officials on Oct. 15 ahead of antiwar demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco, detailed how protesters have sometimes used “training camps” to rehearse, the Internet to raise funds and gas masks to defend against police use of tear gas, the newspaper reported.
The memo analyzed legal activities such as recruiting demonstrators, as well as illegal ones such as using false documentation to gain access to secured sites, it said.
FBI officials told the newspaper that the intelligence gathering effort was aimed at identifying anarchists and “extremist elements” plotting violence, not at monitoring the political speech of law-abiding protesters.
Asked to comment on the paper’s account, an FBI spokesman emphasized that the agency’s interest was in potential criminal, and possibly terrorist, activity.
“The FBI is not interested in individuals who are exercising their constitutional rights of protest,” FBI spokesman Bill Carter said. “It’s only the groups who would be involved in violent or criminal activity where there would be an interest.”
“The extent of the scrutiny is that any time there is a large gathering of people … there is a potential for an act of terrorism,” Carter said.
But civil rights groups and legal scholars told the Times that the monitoring program could signal a return to the abuses of the 1960s and 1970s, when J. Edgar Hoover was the FBI’s director and agents routinely spied on political protesters including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“The FBI is dangerously targeting Americans who are engaged in nothing more than lawful protest and dissent,” Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union told the newspaper. “The line between terrorism and legitimate civil disobedience is blurred, and I have a serious concern about whether we’re going back to the days of Hoover.”
Abuses by Hoover and others at the time led to restrictions on FBI investigations of political activities # restrictions that were relaxed significantly last year when Attorney General John Ashcroft, citing the Sept. 11 attacks, issued guidelines giving agents authority to attend political rallies, mosques and any other public event.