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Ashcroft Denies FBI Stifled Protesters

August 21, 2004|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft on Friday defended FBI interviews of some political protesters around the country before last month's Democratic convention in Boston, which critics described as an intimidation tactic.

Ashcroft told a news conference that FBI agents interviewed only protesters they believed were plotting to firebomb media vehicles at the Democratic National Convention or who might have known about such plots.

Ashcroft said suggestions that the interviews were aimed at stifling protests were an "outrageous distortion."

"We interviewed a very limited number of people that we believed were either participating in a plan to criminally and violently disrupt the Democratic National Convention, or individuals that might have known something about that plan," Ashcroft said.

Three Democratic lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee have criticized the FBI's interviews. They asked the Justice Department's inspector general to investigate "possible violations of 1st Amendment free speech and assembly rights."

The committee's ranking Democrat, Michigan's John Conyers Jr., along with Reps. Robert C. Scott of Virginia and Jerrold Nadler of New York, said in a letter that the FBI "appears to be engaged in systematic political harassment and intimidation of legitimate anti-war protesters."

The warning of a possible attack against media trucks, issued days before the Democratic National Convention, was based on claims by an informant who described an alleged plot by self-described anarchists in the Midwest to throw Molotov cocktails at television vans, a senior U.S. law enforcement official told the Associated Press earlier this week.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which was contacted by some of the protesters who were interviewed by the FBI, said agents never asked directly about such an alleged plot.

Gary Bald, assistant director of the FBI's counter-terrorism division, said the bureau anticipated violent protests at the upcoming Republican National Convention in New York but did not have enough evidence to move against any group or person.

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