ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
In this week of revelations about domestic spying, here's another one. The FBI has been watching activist groups in the United States, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Greenpeace and the Catholic Workers group. The news comes from FBI documents that the American Civil Liberties Union obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The ACLU released the papers today, and NPR's Ari Shapiro has this report.
ARI SHAPIRO reporting:
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, became suspicious even before they saw these documents. Jeff Kerr is the group's general counsel.
Mr. JEFF KERR (General Counsel for PETA): Several of our people have been harassed either at protests, stopped at airports, stopped along highways, harassed at their homes or offices.
SHAPIRO: He says PETA members were interrogated sometimes for hours.
Mr. KERR: So we had suspicion, which is what generated the FOIA request to the Department of Justice.
SHAPIRO: FOIA is the Freedom of Information Act. The American Civil Liberties Union submitted the request a year ago. After a court battle, the FBI gave up the documents. Ben Wizner is an ACLU staff lawyer.
Mr. BEN WIZNER (Staff Lawyer, American Civil Liberties Union): It's really a patchwork of redactions and half-sentences.
SHAPIRO: Whole pages are whited out, but between the blanks are some nuggets that Wizner finds troubling.
Mr. WIZNER: One of the documents has the FBI conceding that it does not consider PETA a terrorist organization, even as other documents label PETA as a subject of domestic terrorism investigations.
SHAPIRO: The documents show the FBI looking for a connection between PETA and an organization that the government has labeled an ecoterrorist group called the Animal Liberation Front. PETA has passed two IRS audits; it holds that as proof that there is no connection between PETA and terrorist groups. Another document says the Catholic Workers group advocates a communist distribution of resources. That organization mainly provides services to the poor. FBI Assistant Director John Miller says agents have to follow terrorism investigations wherever they lead.
Mr. JOHN MILLER (Assistant Director, FBI): You can't draw the line in the middle of a case and say, `Well, this lead, you know, went from the underground shadowy terrorist group to a mainstream above-ground group. I guess we can't pursue it.'
SHAPIRO: He says there are checks in place to make sure those investigations don't go too far: congressional oversight, Justice Department guidelines and an inspector general's office that monitors FBI behavior.
Mr. MILLER: We have that oversight built in, with the idea that we're dealing with a force of human beings. We don't recruit FBI agents from the planet Perfect. They will make errors and mistakes, even well-meaning ones. And there are systems set up to catch that. But on the other side of the coin, you cannot wrap yourself in the flag of a particular cause, no matter what side of the political spectrum it's on, and then say that gives you blanket immunity from being looked at when individuals who operate under the name of your group surface in a criminal investigation.
SHAPIRO: But PETA lawyer Jeff Kerr says there a difference between blanket immunity and freedom from harassment.
Mr. KERR: The FBI has got to tread incredibly carefully when they encounter entirely lawful groups like PETA, Greenpeace and the Catholic Worker, for example. And what these documents show is that there isn't any kind of care like that being done.
SHAPIRO: The documents show informants for the FBI monitoring environmental and animal rights conferences and protests. That worries the ACLU's Ben Wizner.
Mr. WIZNER: There's a real danger that the tradition of robust political dissent in this country will be chilled. No one wants to think that by going to a conference on global warming, by going to a protest of logging, that their name or their license plate number will end up in an FBI file.
SHAPIRO: Until recently federal restrictions said the FBI could only investigate criminal acts. Attorney General John Ashcroft rolled back some of those requirements after the 9/11 attacks. That made investigations like these possible. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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