Releasing new documents obtained from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the Legal Director of the Colorado ACLU, Mark Silverstein, said today that the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) wastes resources and threatens First Amendment rights by wrongfully equating nonviolent protest with domestic terrorism.
“These documents confirm that the names and license plate numbers of several dozen peaceful protesters who committed no crime are now in a JTTF file marked ‘counterterrorism,’” Silverstein said. “This kind of surveillance of First Amendment activities has serious consequences. Law-abiding Americans may be reluctant to speak out when doing so means that their names will wind up in an FBI file.”
Two of the FBI reports released today concern nonviolent protests conducted by critics of the timber industry’s forestry practices at a convention of the North American Wholesale Lumber Association (NAWLA) in Colorado Springs in June, 2002. “The FBI opened this investigation because it learned that activists were planning nonviolence training for persons who wanted to participate in the protests,” Silverstein said. “Nonviolence training has nothing to do with terrorism. But the documents show that the JTTF sent a report to the counterterrorism section of the FBI asking that a ‘case be opened and assigned.’”
“The protests were indeed peaceful,” Silverstein said. “Several dozen persons peacefully expressed their views during the several-day convention. A handful were arrested for trespass when they hung a banner from the tower of the convention hotel, but the overwhelming majority were never accused or even suspected of this minor nonviolent offense or any other violation of law.”
“After the protests were over, however, the JTTF obtained and included in the file a list of license plate numbers of the participants and the corresponding vehicle registration information,” Silverstein continued. “Thus, the names of persons who were never accused or suspected of even minor criminal activity are now in the files of the JTTF, solely because they exercised their constitutionally-protected right to peacefully express their opinions in a public protest.”
Although the FBI report on the NAWLA protests states that the list of plate numbers is attached, the FBI said it was withholding those three pages from the ACLU, citing FOIA privacy exemptions. Nevertheless, Silverstein said, the ACLU had already obtained those three pages – and posted them in redacted form on the ACLU’s web site — during litigation over the “Spy Files” maintained by the Denver Police Department’s Intelligence Unit. The first page, a fax cover sheet, indicates that Denver police detective Tom Fisher, who worked full time for the JTTF, asked for and obtained the list from the Colorado Springs Police Department. Responding to earlier press inquiries about this document, an FBI spokesperson confirmed that Agent Fisher obtained the list of names and license plates in the course of his JTTF duties. “The FBI documents released today confirm that this list of names of innocent persons is maintained, unjustifiably, in an FBI file marked ‘counterterrorism,’” Silverstein said.
The ACLU also released a report, obtained on behalf of the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace, that shows that the FBI opened a “domestic terrorism” investigation after reading web sites promoting an antiwar demonstration in Colorado Springs in February, 2003. The report indicates that the FBI planned to conduct surveillance in Denver at the location where participants gathered to car pool to the demonstration in Colorado Springs. It also indicates that Nextel provided website information to the author of the FBI report. “The FBI case number of this report begins with 266,” Silverstein said, “which is the FBI classification for ‘domestic terrorism.’ The FBI file title includes the abbreviation ‘AOT,’ which means ‘acts of terrorism’ and ‘DT,’ which means ‘domestic terrorism.’ Yet there is nothing in the FBI report that provides any grounds for suspecting that any of three web sites were promoting domestic terrorism or violent crime. The web sites promoted a peace demonstration.”
“The FBI is unjustifiably treating nonviolent public protest as though it were domestic terrorism,” Silverstein said. “The FBI’s misplaced priorities threaten to deter legitimate criticism of government policy while wasting taxpayer resources that should be directed to investigating real terrorists.”