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Monday, July 18, 2005

FBI Surveillance of the ACLU and Greenpeace

Picture_fbi_logo_2 From the New York Times:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has collected at least 3,500 pages of internal documents in the last several years on a handful of civil rights and antiwar protest groups in what the groups charge is an attempt to stifle political opposition to the Bush administration.

The F.B.I. has in its files 1,173 pages of internal documents on the American Civil Liberties Union, the leading critic of the Bush administration's antiterrorism policies, and 2,383 pages on Greenpeace, an environmental group that has led acts of civil disobedience in protest over the administration's policies, the Justice Department disclosed in a court filing this month in a federal court in Washington.

The filing came as part of a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act brought by the A.C.L.U. and other groups that maintain that the F.B.I. has engaged in a pattern of political surveillance against critics of the Bush administration. A smaller batch of documents already turned over by the government sheds light on the interest of F.B.I. counterterrorism officials in protests surrounding the Iraq war and last year's Republican National Convention.

F.B.I. and Justice Department officials declined to say what was in the A.C.L.U. and Greenpeace files, citing the pending lawsuit. But they stressed that as a matter of both policy and practice, they have not sought to monitor the political activities of any activist groups and that any intelligence-gathering activities related to political protests are intended to prevent disruptive and criminal activity at demonstrations, not to quell free speech. They said there might be an innocuous explanation for the large volume of files on the A.C.L.U. and Greenpeace, like preserving requests from or complaints about the groups in agency files.

Is there an innocuous explanation?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  The FBI's history sure isn't good when it comes to surveillance of political and civil liberties groups.  In its famous COINTELPRO investigations, the FBI routinely targed political dissenters.  As the famous Church Committee in Congress, led by Senator Frank Church, concluded in 1976:

The FBI’s COINTELPRO—counterintelligence program—was designed to “disrupt” groups and “neutralize” individuals deemed to be threats to domestic security.  The FBI resorted to counterintelligence tactics in part because its chief officials believed that existing law could not control the activities of certain dissident groups, and that court decisions had dtied the hands of the intelligence community.  Whatever opinion one holds about the policies of the targeted groups, many of the tactics employed by the FBI were indisputably degrading to a free society.

Many apologists for the FBI will rush to defend the FBI's files about the ACLU and Greenpeace.  Although it is too early to cast aspersions, there's a larger problem at work here.  If the information is innocuous, why the culture of secrecy?  Why not just come clean and explain why the data is being gathered?  More transparency is the answer.  If the government wants to work in secrecy, then I think it really shouldn't be justified in crying foul when others express concerns and assume the worst.  In other words, I think that government agencies have an onus to demonstrate to the American people why their actions are appropriate and justified, to set forth the relevant facts so that people can really trust the government.  With the unprecedented secrecy of the Bush Administration, and the typical secrecy of the FBI, one of the costs is that many people might assume the worst.  If the FBI doesn't like this . . . well . . . then it can be more forthcoming.    

Hat tip: Emergent Chaos

UPDATE: Orin Kerr at the VC has an interesting post arguing that the New York Times story reported that the documents were "on" the ACLU and Greenpeace rather than "referring to" these organizations.  Orin writes: "The ACLU didn't request just documents about the ACLU, or documents about monitoring the ACLU. Rather, it made an extremely broad request that asked the FBI to collect any documents in its possession that even just referred to the ACLU."  Orin has a point.  One of the FOIA requests was for "[a]ny records relating or referring to the Requestors."  This could include a wide array of documents, including legal pleadings.  Distortions such as these by the ACLU and the New York Times are troublesome.  In my post, I argued that the FBI's culture of secrecy and past history impacted its trustworthiness in a negative way.  Puffing up a story to make it seem more troublesome than it might be also impacts trustworthiness, too.  So the moral of the story is the same -- if you want to establish trust, give us more facts and less spin, be more open and honest.  I guess this advice needs to be heeded not just by the FBI, but also by the ACLU and the New York Times as well. 

Posted by Daniel Solove on July 18, 2005 at 12:49 PM in Daniel Solove, Information and Technology | Permalink

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Over at Volokh, Orin Kerr writes "The New York Times ACLU Story Begins to Look A Bit Fishy." The essence of Kerr's argument is that with the ACLU's request for any document mentioning the ACLU, of course they're going... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 18, 2005 11:50:34 PM

Comments

Considering the nature of the COINTELPRO unit and it shistory, nk, they likley do have files on organizations that want to wipe the ACLU out. Still, domestic surveillance on these groups seems to be a bit of a stretch in a lot of cases especially when coupled with some of the other stories about the use of the investigatory powers granted to the Bureau in the past few years.
And, yes, the rest of you wacky readers I am back for a while. Bring the ruckus.

Posted by: Joel | Jul 19, 2005 10:41:52 AM

Thank you for the update. Maybe, it's only a thought, don't hold me to it, but could it be the FBI has files on wackos who are threats to the ACLU?

Posted by: nk | Jul 18, 2005 11:21:26 PM

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