Monday, September 20, 2010

Inspector General Reviews FBI Investigations of Advocacy Groups

The Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General released a report today concluding that the FBI did not target five domestic advocacy groups and one individual on the basis of their protected First Amendment activities between January 2001 and December 2006.  But the report also concluded that the FBI opened some investigations with a weak factual predication, unnecessarily labeled some activities as domestic terrorism, and maintained irrelevant information about targets' protected First Amendment activities too long.   

While the OIG concluded that the FBI did not target groups for their protected activities, it noted that the investigations and classifications did have "practical impacts":

However, in some cases, we found that the FBI extended the duration of investigations involving advocacy groups or their members without sufficient basis.  This had practice impacts on subjects, whose names were maintained on watchlists as a result and whose travels and interactions with law enforcement were tracked.  For example, the FBI continued to collect information about the international travel of two subjects of a PETA-related investigation after the point that the underlying justification for the case ceased to exist.

. . .

The domestic terrorism classification had impact beyond any stigma resulting from the public release of the documents under FOIA.  For example, persons who are subjects of domestic terrorism investigations are normally placed on watchlists, and their travels and interactions with law enforcement may be tracked. 

The OIG concluded that the FBI's activities by and large did not violate the Attorney General's Guidelines for Domestic FBI Operations.  (There was an exception: The FBI violated the Guidelines when it sent an agent "to look for terrorism subjects at an anti-war rally."  The OIG called this an "ill-conceived project on a slow work day.")  But it also noted that the 2008 Guidelines loosened the standard for retention of information related to attendance at public events.  (The report recommended tightening them back up.)

The report included six recommendations, two of which addressed the "inconsistent and erroneous" statements about the Pittsburgh Field Division's surveillance of a Merton Center anti-war rally.  The report also recommended requiring identification of a federal crime as part of the predication that triggers an investigation, revising the Guidelines to prohibit the retention of irrelevant "First Amendment material" from public events, clarifying when "First Amendment cases" should be classified as terrorism cases, and conducting a review of recent domestic terrorism cases out of the Pittsburgh Division.

The report examined FBI activities related to six different organizations and individuals: The Thomas Merton Center of Pittsburgh; PETA; Greenpeace USA; The Catholic Worker; Glen Milner (an individual); and The Religious Society of Friends. 


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