March 14, 2006

FBI spied on Pittsburgh pacifists, papers show

By Jonathan Barnes

PITTSBURGH (Reuters) - FBI anti-terrorism agents spied on a
peace group simply because it opposed the Iraq war, part of an
"unprecedented campaign" to spy on innocent citizens, the
American Civil Liberties Union said on Tuesday.

FBI documents acquired under the Freedom of Information Act
and provided to reporters show the FBI conducted surveillance
of the Pittsburgh-based Thomas Merton Center for Peace &
Justice at anti-war demonstrations and leaflet distributions in
2002 and 2003.

One of the FBI documents, unveiled at a news conference by
the two groups, carried the headline "International Terrorism
Matters" and referred to the FBI's work with an anti-terrorism
task force that includes several agencies.

Another FBI document said the Pittsburgh Joint Terrorism
Task Force had learned that "The Thomas Merton Center ... has
been determined to be an organization which is opposed to the
United States' war with Iraq."

A separate document noted, "One female leaflet distributor
who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, inquired if
(confidential source's name withheld) was an FBI agent. No
other TMC participants appeared to be of Middle Eastern

FBI officials in Pittsburgh said the bureau was engaged in
legitimate investigations, and in one case dropped the probe
upon determining a person photographed at one demonstration was
not whom they were looking for.

"We had a legitimate purpose for being there," FBI special
agent Bill Crowley said, referring to a November 2002 protest.

The ACLU said the spying fit a pattern of federal abuse
following the September 11 attacks. U.S. President George W.
Bush has generally received high marks from the public for
taking a strong hand in security matters.

"From the FBI to the Pentagon to the National Security
Agency, this administration has embarked on an unprecedented
campaign to spy on innocent Americans," Ann Beeson, associate
legal director of the ACLU, said in a statement.


An FBI memo dated November 2002 said the Merton Center
"holds daily leaflet distribution activities in downtown
Pittsburgh and is currently focused on its opposition to the
potential war in Iraq." The war began in March 2003.

The memo called the Merton Center "a left-wing organization
advocating, among many political causes, pacifism."

The FBI acknowledged the report sounded as if it were
reporting on the activities of an anti-war group, but said
"such a characterization would be factually misleading."

The agent was pursuing leads "from another source possibly
establishing a link between an ongoing investigation and the
group engaging in anti-war protests. Finding no such link, he
terminated his surveillance," the FBI said in a statement.

Although previously disclosed documents showed the FBI was
retaining files on anti-war groups, the ACLU said these
documents were the first to show conclusively that the FBI
targeted the Merton Center because of its pacifism.

"We know that this surveillance is about the political
views of the Thomas Merton Center because that's what the
documents say," said Mary Catherine Roper, an attorney with the
Pittsburgh ACLU.

Merton Center director Jim Kleissler said his group filed
the request for FBI documents because its members believed they
were being spied on by the FBI in 2002 and 2003 while they
protested against the imminent war in Iraq.

Kleissler said he was not particularly surprised to find
that his group was being investigated by the FBI "but we were
surprised that it was so closely tied to terrorism."