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FBI Keeps Watch on Activists

Antiwar, other groups are monitored to curb violence, not because of ideology, agency says.

March 27, 2006|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — The FBI, while waging a highly publicized war against terrorism, has spent resources gathering information on antiwar and environmental protesters and on activists who feed vegetarian meals to the homeless, the agency's internal memos show.

For years, the FBI's definition of terrorism has included violence against property, such as the window-smashing during the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. That definition has led FBI investigations to online discussion boards, organizing meetings and demonstrations of a wide range of activist groups. Officials say that international terrorists pose the greatest threat to the nation but that they cannot ignore crimes committed by some activists.

"It's one thing to express an idea or such, but when you commit acts of violence in support of that activity, that's where our interest comes in," said FBI spokesman Bill Carter in Washington.

He stressed that the agency targeted individuals who committed crimes and did not single out groups for ideological reasons. He cited the recent arrest of environmental activists accused of firebombing an unfinished ski resort in Vail. "People can get hurt," Carter said. "Businesses can be ruined."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 29, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Monitoring of activists: In some copies of Monday's Section A, a front-page headline said, "Activists on Anti-Terror Watch List." The list referred to in the article was not a formal terrorist watch list, the FBI said, but was included in a Department of Justice presentation to a law class that listed groups terrorists might associate with. Two left-wing groups were included.

The FBI's encounters with activists are described in hundreds of pages of documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act after agents visited several activists before the 2004 political conventions. Details have steadily trickled out over the last year, but newly released documents provide a fuller view of some FBI probes.

"Any definition of terrorism that would include someone throwing a bottle or rock through a window during an antiwar demonstration is dangerously overbroad," ACLU staff attorney Ben Wizner said. "The FBI will have its hands full pursuing antiwar groups instead of truly dangerous organizations."

ACLU attorneys say most violence during demonstrations is minor and is better handled by local police than federal counterterrorism agents. They say the FBI, which spied on antiwar and civil rights leaders during the 1960s, appears to be investigating activists solely for opposing the government.

"They don't know where Osama bin Laden is, but they're spending money watching people like me," said environmental activist Kirsten Atkins. Her license plate number showed up in an FBI terrorism file after she attended a protest against the lumber industry in Colorado Springs in 2002.

ACLU attorneys acknowledge that the FBI memos are heavily redacted and contain incomplete portraits of some cases. Still, the attorneys say, the documents show that the FBI has monitored groups that were not suspected of any crime.

"It certainly seems they're casting a net much more widely than would be necessary to thwart something like the blowing up of the Oklahoma City federal building," said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado.

FBI officials respond that there is nothing improper about agents attending a meeting or demonstration.

"We have to be able to go out and look at things; we have to be able to conduct an investigation," said William J. Crowley, a spokesman for the FBI in Pittsburgh. His field office filed a report -- released by the ACLU this month -- in which an agent described photographing Pittsburgh activists who were handing out fliers for a war protest. The report mentioned no potential violence or crimes.

Crowley said his office had been looking for a certain person in that case and had closed the file when it realized the suspect was not among those handing out the leaflets.

The murky connection that the federal government makes between some left-wing activist groups and terrorism was illustrated in a Justice Department presentation to a college law class this month.

An FBI counterterrorism official showed the class, at the University of Texas in Austin, 35 slides listing militia, neo-Nazi and Islamist groups. Senior Special Agent Charles Rasner said one slide, labeled "Anarchism," was a federal analyst's list of groups that people intent on terrorism might associate with.

The list included Food Not Bombs, which mainly serves vegetarian food to homeless people, and -- with a question mark next to it -- Indymedia, a collective that publishes what it calls radical journalism online. Both groups are among the numerous organizations affiliated with anarchists and anti-globalization protests, where there has been some violence.

Elizabeth Wagoner said she was one of the few students who objected to the groups' inclusion on the list. "My friends do Indymedia," she said. "My friends aren't terrorists."

Rasner said that he'd never heard of the two groups before and didn't mean to condemn them. But he added that it made sense to worry about violent people emerging from anarchist networks -- "Any group can have somebody that goes south."

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