WASHINGTON — The FBI today disputed once-secret documents showing that agents and informants sent to spy on anti-Reagan activists collected so much information on peaceful protest activities that bureau headquarters was worried that they had gone too far.
The FBI denied that its investigation was political in nature, saying it had information that members of the targeted group--the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador--planned or discussed disrupting the 1984 Republican convention and shutting down a public utility.
The FBI's executive assistant director, Oliver B. Revell, came before a Senate panel to defend the investigation of CISPES, which was ended without any charges being filed.
The CISPES portion of the inquiry ran from March, 1983, through June, 1985. The group, which opposes the U.S.-backed regime in El Salvador, has accused the FBI of spying on it solely for political reasons.
Nuns and Union Leaders
Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act have shown that although the investigation initially was targeted only at CISPES, FBI files eventually included information on hundreds of other individuals and groups, ranging from Roman Catholic nuns to union leaders who opposed Reagan policies.
In defending the inquiry, Revell told the Senate panel that in addition to possible violence, CISPES was involved in circulating forged U.S. documents and had strong ties to the U.S. Communist Party.
"Some have insinuated that this investigation was politically motivated . . . ," Revell said. "Nothing could be further from the truth.
"We did find indications that some CISPES members were at least discussing and planning violence. Our investigations uncovered one CISPES member who was tasked to determine response times of emergency services in a major American city; another CISPES member stated he had developed a system to shut down a public utility in a major Midwestern city; as well as plans to violently disrupt the 1984 Republican convention."
Message to 32 Offices
Jerry Berman, chief legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the investigation should have started under the most strict guidelines, those for general criminal investigations.
On July 26, 1984--about 16 months after the investigation began--FBI headquarters sent 32 field offices a message that suggested that some of them were going beyond the guidelines.
But messages from the field showed that the offices were still confused.
In August, 1984, the Denver office told headquarters, "The field is still not sure of how much seemingly legitimate political activity can be monitored."
And before the July directive, FBI headquarters received messages like this one from Cincinnati: "The bureau is requested to furnish Cincinnati with guidelines regarding investigation of captioned matter, vis-a-vis religious organizations--specifically the Roman Catholic Church."