WASHINGTON – An FBI counterterrorism unit monitored – and apparently infiltrated – a peace group in Pittsburgh that opposed the invasion of Iraq, according to internal agency documents released on Tuesday.
The disclosure raised new questions about the extent to which federal authorities have been conducting surveillance operations against Americans since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Previous revelations include FBI monitoring of environmental and animal rights organizations, scrutiny of anti-war organizations by a top-secret Pentagon program and eavesdropping by the National Security Agency on domestic communications without court authorization.
Federal officials insist that the efforts are legal.
The documents released on Tuesday were obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act. They showed that the Joint Terrorism Task Force of the FBI’s Pittsburgh office conducted a secret investigation into the activities of the Thomas Merton Center beginning as early as Nov. 29, 2002, and continuing as late as March 2005.
William J. Crowley, a spokesman for the FBI’s Pittsburgh office, said that the monitoring of the center was legal and related to an ongoing investigation. He said that when the FBI found no link between its investigation and the center, it ended the surveillance.
The ACLU contended that the documents are the first to “show conclusively” that an anti-war group was targeted for “its anti-war views.”
“These documents show that Americans are not safe from secret government surveillance, even when they are handing out fliers in the town square, an activity clearly protected by the Constitution,” said Marty Catherine Roper, an ACLU staff attorney.
The center, founded in 1972, describes itself as a group of people from diverse faiths who believe in “nonviolent struggle” for peace and justice.
An FBI report dated Nov. 29, 2002, identified the center as “a left-wing organization advocating, among many political causes, pacifism.”’
“The TMC holds daily leaflet distribution activities in downtown Pittsburgh and is currently focused on its opposition to the potential war in Iraq,” said the report. “According to these leaflets, Iraq does not possess weapons of mass destruction and that, if the United States invades Iraq, Saddam Hussein will unleash bio-chemical weapons upon American soldiers.”
Four heavily redacted documents – one dated Nov. 5, 2004, another Feb. 28, 2005, and two dated March 23, 2005 – appeared to be reports from an FBI informant who had infiltrated the group.
The documents all contained the phrase: “Source, who is not in a position to testify, provided the following information.” They also say that the source observed and reported on the group. The information reported was blacked out.