Federal agents kept track of antiwar demonstrations by the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane at least since 2002, at one point apparently getting information from a “spy” in the group as it planned a protest at a nearby military base.
The FBI gleaned information from the group’s Web site, including that PJALS mentioned the launch of a new public radio station, and had other material dealing with a protest in the local office of then-U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Rusty Nelson, leader of the peace group and a longtime protest organizer, said he thought the surveillance was an effort to “quell dissent” and discourage participation in the political process.
But there was one positive aspect, he said: “At least somebody’s looking at our Web site.”
Doug Honig of the ACLU’s Seattle office, which obtained and then released the reports, said the FBI was wasting its time and taxpayers’ money watching PJALS, which has a long history of peaceful protests.
“The FBI shouldn’t have files on people who conduct peaceful protests,” Honig said.
But spokesmen for the FBI offices in Seattle and Washington, D.C., said the agency was not watching the group. It was likely watching individuals in the group, based on information it may have received that may or may not have proved true.
“No group is going to be of interest to us, except maybe al-Qaida,” said Fred Gutt, a special agent in the Seattle office.
“We don’t investigate groups,” insisted Rich Kolko, a special agent in the bureau’s Washington, D.C., office. “We investigate criminal activity.”
Because the law allows the agency to remove certain information from records, including most names, it may not be possible to determine who was being watched, he said.
Neither Gutt nor Kolko was familiar with the specific records released to the ACLU. But Kolko said if the bureau receives a tip about criminal activity by someone in the group, it would be required to investigate, and even if the information was baseless, to keep a record of its investigation.
“We don’t purge records. If we write something down, we keep it,” Kolko said.
Among the records the agency keeps involving PJALS are:
“Notice from an unnamed “analyst” that the group had put a notice on its Web site that KYRS, or Thin Air Community Radio “is up and running at the Community Building, although the reception is not very strong.”
“Several documents – including a copy of a newsletter called Peace News – deal with an April 2002 demonstration in Nethercutt’s district office in the U.S. Courthouse in downtown Spokane. Eight protesters were arrested when they refused to leave after Nethercutt wouldn’t speak with them. The congressman met them about a month later, and charges against all but one protester were dismissed.
“Repeated references to a former PJALS member who left the group to commit acts of civil disobedience that he suspected the organization would not tolerate. Michael Poulin, whose name is excised from the reports, loosened bolts in about 20 high-voltage transmission towers in the Northwest, which he said was a way to point out how vulnerable the towers were to terrorists. He was arrested while attempting to turn himself in, pleaded guilty to two federal counts of tampering with federal property and was sentenced to 27 months in prison in November 2003.
Poulin returned to Spokane after serving his sentence and has rejoined PJALS, Nelson said. He’s a featured speaker in its current lecture series on “Empire.”
“Two references to a March 2003 protest at the gate of Fairchild Air Force Base. The early-morning protest briefly blocked the entrance to the base and resulted in 10 arrests.
Nelson said the group suspected that PJALS had an infiltrator in the days leading up to the protest, because one new member who had been involved in the planning and shouted slogans at the beginning of the event disappeared when the other demonstrators moved into the street. State patrolmen, military police and the county’s SWAT team were on hand that morning when the protesters arrived, he added.
“It was the greatest array of law enforcement we ever saw,” Nelson recalled. “All of them, and we were 10 – well 11 if you count the infiltrator.”