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New documents confirm: FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force targets peaceful activists for harassment, political surveillance
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado released documents today that it says confirm that the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in Denver is targeting peaceful political activists for harassment and building files on constitutionally-protected political activities and associations that have nothing to do with terrorism or other criminal activity.
The documents are the first FBI responses to a formal request that the Colorado ACLU filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on behalf of 26 organizations and 10 individuals last December. At the time, the Colorado ACLU presented evidence that the JTTF was collecting information on peaceful advocacy groups whose issues ranged from animal rights, protection of the environment, labor rights, military policy, social and economic justice in Latin America, and the treatment of Native Americans. Six additional ACLU affiliates around the country filed similar requests in December, and ten additional ACLUs filed FOIA requests today.
“These documents confirm that the FBI’s anti-terrorism unit is targeting nonviolent activists and unjustifiably treating constitutionally-protected dissent as though it were potential terrorism,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. “They illustrate that the FBI is pursuing misplaced priorities that waste taxpayers’ money and pose a threat to freedom of expression and association. People will be reluctant to sign a petition or join a peaceful demonstration when they know that their names might wind up in an FBI file on ‘domestic terrorism.’”
The documents reveal that the FBI is particularly interested in Food Not Bombs, which opposes the government’s prioritization of war and military programs over social programs. Twice a week in Denver for the last six years, Food Not Bombs has been providing free vegetarian meals in a picnic setting in public parks to anyone who is hungry. Autonomous chapters of Food Not Bombs carry out in similar activities in Boulder, Fort Collins and Durango, as well as numerous cities throughout the country.
One FBI report, written in December 2004, focused specifically on Sarah Bardwell, a young Denver activist who worked for the American Friends Service Committee for several years in the organization’s Youth and Militarism Program and who is also active with Food Not Bombs. The FBI report notes that Bardwell was listed as a “point of contact” for the organizers of an antiwar protest in downtown Denver in March, 2004. It further notes that her address is “associated with” Food Not Bombs and Derailer Bicycle Collective. (Volunteers at Derailer fix up old bikes, donate bicycles to the homeless, and teach people to work on their own bikes.) The author of the FBI report also states that Derailer hosted a meeting place during the Columbus Day protests in Denver two years earlier.
“This report on Sarah Bardwell collects information about her peaceful political activities and her constitutionally-protected associations,” Silverstein said. “It contains nothing that suggests that she is connected with terrorism or any other criminal activity.”
The FBI documents provide new information about a controversial JTTF operation that targeted political activists for aggressive and intimidating questioning in Colorado and other states in the summer of 2004. A three-page report discusses the events of July 22, 2004, when two teams of JTTF agents, accompanied by Denver police officers in SWAT gear, appeared at two Denver residences on Lipan Street that are home to a number of young political activists, including Bardwell. Bardwell explained at the time that the JTTF agents demanded to know if she and her housemates were planning to commit crimes at the upcoming Republican and Democratic conventions and whether they knew anyone who was planning such crimes. They also threatened that failing to provide information to the FBI was a criminal offense. Critics charged that the FBI was actively attempting to intimidate dissenters rather than conducting a legitimate investigation of reasonably suspected criminal activity.
The FBI report explains that the Denver JTTF received several “leads” and was asked to conduct “pretext interviews” about plans for the political conventions. The first two “leads” the JTTF pursued were the two houses on Lipan Street. The FBI report states that no information about criminal activity was obtained. The report then states that the JTTF agents decided not to follow up on another lead, regarding a radical bookstore, because, as the report stated, “the purpose of the interviews was served by the contacts made at the two residences.”
“These accounts of the JTTF’s visits to the Lipan Street homes confirm that the FBI was more interested in intimidation than in trying to gather information,” Silverstein said. “The JTTF show of force, complete with SWAT teams, was an abuse of power apparently intended to deter persons who might be considering demonstrating at the political conventions.”
A similar three-page report reveals that the JTTF also intended to question Scott Silber, a labor consultant who had recently assisted janitors in a campaign that secured health insurance in 40 employer agreements. Silber reports receiving several phone calls from an FBI agent who demonstrated extensive knowledge of Silber’s recent addresses but who would not explain his interest in questioning Silber.
The FBI documents released today supplement documents released earlier by the Colorado ACLU, many obtained in connection with litigation over the Denver Police Department’s “Spy Files,” which also document the JTTF’s collection of political surveillance information. Those documents are available here.