Journalism in the Public Interest

Watchdog Faults FBI for ‘Factually Weak’ Basis for Investigating Activists


FBI Director Robert Mueller (Getty Images file photo)

The FBI in recent years opened investigations into some U.S. activists with little basis, unjustifiably extended the duration of the probes, improperly retained information about activist groups in its files, and classified its investigations of “nonviolent civil disobedience” as investigations into “acts of terrorism,” according to a report released today (PDF) by the Justice Department’s Inspector General.

The FBI activities reviewed by the Justice Department took place from 2001 to 2006, and involved groups including the Thomas Merton Center (a Pittsburgh social justice center), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Greenpeace, The Catholic Worker (communities of religious pacifists) and a Quaker peace activist.

The report by the Justice Department watchdog didn’t find that the FBI  targeted these groups on the basis of their free speech activities — which would be a serious violation of FBI guidelines — but did fault the agency for other reasons, most notably a “factually weak” basis for opening investigations.

 “FBI agents and supervisors sometimes provided the [Office of the Inspector General] with speculative, after-the-fact rationalizations for their prior decisions to open investigations that we did not find persuasive,” the report said.

The report also found that that the FBI unnecessarily classified its probes as domestic terrorism investigations, even though some of the potential crimes were trespassing or vandalism — acts not normally considered to be terrorism. This classification resulted in several individuals improperly being placed on terrorism watchlists.

The Inspector General also found that the FBI gave “inaccurate and misleading” explanations to justify its attendance at a 2002 rally against the Iraq war organized by the Merton Center. 

The FBI’s director, Robert Mueller, told a Senate committee in 2006 that his agents at the antiwar rally “were not concerned about the political dissent,” but were attempting to identify “persons of interest” expected to attend the rally. 

That testimony wasn’t supported by an “extremely troubling” FBI document about the incident, the report noted. The document “described no legitimate purpose for the FBI to attend the event” and “supplied no evidence or even suspicion that any criminal or terrorist element was associated with the Merton Center or likely to be present at the event,” the report said.

The FBI, responding in an appendix to the report, acknowledged the inaccuracies. It said that incorrect information was provided to the FBI director, who then testified inaccurately before Congress.

“The FBI regrets that incorrect information was provided regarding this matter,” Deputy Director Timothy P. Murphy wrote in a letter to Inspector General Glenn Fine.

The surveillance of activists —  both on the state level as well as the federal level — has been a recent topic of concern. As we’ve noted, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, apologized last week for a state contract with an anti-terrorism consulting firm, which produced a document calling opponents to gas drilling “environmental extremists” and flagged these and other activists as potential threats to the state’s security.

The document’s section about environmental extremism, as we’ve noted, cited an FBI bulletin as the source of the information. In the document, the FBI assessed with “medium confidence” the threat that environmental extremists posed to the energy sector. (FBI “assessments,” under 2008 guidelines from the attorney general, are the agency’s “lowest level of investigative activity,” the Inspector General report said.)

The FBI has not responded to our request for comment.

this same level of interest directed at members of Congress might prove interesting. Oh wait, the Congress approves the FBI’s budget, right?

Not a surprise what the FBI did. But then the gop always hated Free Speech, unless it’s theirs.

Also no surprise this occurred during the last administration’s terms.

Antonio Nelson

Sep. 20, 2010, 6:26 p.m.

the fbi do not have a job to do any more ( cold war is finished) ,so they All the time trying to get something to go into ,this way they can proven that they are Still “necessary” therefore,the BIG money spend in salarys for its staff and agents get approved,bigger and bigger every year: another waste of Peoples tax’s money.

It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks and virtually impossible to change the fundamental mission and collective mindsets of a large government agency.  The FBI criminal division’s mission hasn’t changed much.  They still do the same old job they always did, although they’re having a harder time of figuring out where their jurisdiction should stop and other federal agencies begin.  The counterterrorism people have their work cut out for them, because they are trying to proactively prevent terrorist attacks while operating within a highly legalistic, hierarchical and traditionalist organization.  They are pressed to get results although their time might be better spent doing work that won’t pay off for 2 or 3 years.  The IG is always good at finding the symptoms, but I think neither they nor the Justice Department leadership are interested in pushing for the kind of change that is really needed there.  It’s not as easy as creating another layer of bureaucracy or passing some legislation that changes nothing due to agency politics .  They have to get all of these agencies to cooperate and that’s not even happening within the Justice Department.

It never changes.  Persons of “interest”?  Mueller should be a person of interest.  He’s even beginning to look like Hoover…blood hound eyes and all.  Evidently FBI never heard of Thomas Merton.

Antonio Nelson

Sep. 20, 2010, 10:16 p.m.

An agency who does not do its job and instead create a story about the people like this"factually weak” basis,to get innocent people with a tag of terrorist it does not get my respect ,that is why I am writing fbi.

It does not matter if the criminal division of this institution have change or not but the poor performance that has being getting for the last decade,that is the problem,.

Lets mention recent events like Katrina,what criminals they got on there??,how about Iraq??,the MAIN job they have is burocracy.
They should starting cutting its staff and employees by half,that should be a good start.I wonder where they were on september 11?.

It is easy for them to accuse innocent people because most of the time they do not have the money to persecute them,because fbi has immunity,and the lawyers does not want to persecute this cases,I do not know if lawyers are afraid of this “intelligency” agencys or something else.
ProPublica,call them for comment in this article,they did not answer,they never will!

Suppose I can be a person of interest if I protest my speeding ticket?

The FBI has investigated several dozen Congressmen in the last decade, and most of them have gone to prison.  No one should be above the law.  Not even if their badge says FBI Special Agent.

Now you know why Director Mueller is rallying his troops to killl Senate Bill 372 which would roll back whistleblower protection for FBI Agents.  Every single whistleblower under Director Mueller’s reign has suffered reprisal, retaliation and a quick end to their career.  Simply look at Fred Whitehurst (misconduct/criminal activity in the FBI lab), Sibel Edmonds (misconduct/criminal activity in translation department), John Roberts (misconduct/criminal activity in OPR department),  Jane Turner (theft from Ground Zero),  Coleen Rowley (failure to connect the dots in terrorism cases), and others.  To see how much damage Director Mueller has done to those who speak truth to power, check out the National Whistleblower Center website. 
The FBI is not going to ever change, or get better if we do not protect its’ whistleblowers.

It doesn’t matter anymore what party is in power…not sure it ever did.  But without question today, the two main political parties (at the national and upper ranks of the state level) shared goal these days it to to give cover to the goals of big business.  The FBI is the domestic tool to keep us from objecting in any meaningful and organized manner.  How I wish we were what our Constitution and Bill of Rights said we were, but we’ve been undermined where it counts.

Antonio Nelson

Sep. 21, 2010, 1:14 p.m.

ALL the comments that I am reading from this gentlemen,above, if it truth,that is fbi’s job,they get pay for that and better performance they SHOULD get.

I still believe that cutting its staff and employees for half should be done as soon as possible,one more mistake like this:Factually weak basis for innocent people involved,Should cost the main head(Mueller) out of his post.I am not complaining for words but actions,Wrong actions!! .

Cut its personnel for half and start reengineering the whole agency,Stop getting involved innocent people,that is not to much to ask for,in comparison with the Giant budge! that they get not only now but when they get retired.

Well, Janet Napalitano said after a request from Texas to send more troops to their border as the Drug Cartel’s continue to spill over the border, we can’t afford it, you want the National Guard, call them up and you pay for it. It seems they could afford to protect this sovereign country and put Americans to work shoring up our infrastructure. Instead they pay contractors in Afghanistan who rob the U.S. Treasury and build structure in Afghanistan that will surely be blown up by Jihadist.

I think we need Nation building in America and a formation of a Gov’t that represents its people.

First of all, why are we surprised at this. I mean, J.Edgar Hoover laid the ground work for this agency to operate, and with no accountability to no one, it’s no surprise to the people out there doing the work! Its scary, because who knows what these people are up to these days.


Nov. 23, 2010, 12:59 a.m.

This is what your heros are doing

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