[Hpn] NYTimes.com Article: F.B.I. Goes Knocking for Political Troublemakers

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Mon, 16 Aug 2004 18:09:16 -0400 (EDT)

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F.B.I. Goes Knocking for Political Troublemakers

August 16, 2004


WASHINGTON, Aug. 15 - The Federal Bureau of Investigation
has been questioning political demonstrators across the
country, and in rare cases even subpoenaing them, in an
aggressive effort to forestall what officials say could be
violent and disruptive protests at the Republican National
Convention in New York. 

F.B.I. officials are urging agents to canvass their
communities for information about planned disruptions aimed
at the convention and other coming political events, and
they say they have developed a list of people who they
think may have information about possible violence. They
say the inquiries, which began last month before the
Democratic convention in Boston, are focused solely on
possible crimes, not on dissent, at major political events.

But some people contacted by the F.B.I. say they are
mystified by the bureau's interest and felt harassed by
questions about their political plans. 

"The message I took from it," said Sarah Bardwell, 21, an
intern at a Denver antiwar group who was visited by six
investigators a few weeks ago, "was that they were trying
to intimidate us into not going to any protests and to let
us know that, 'hey, we're watching you.' '' 

The unusual initiative comes after the Justice Department,
in a previously undisclosed legal opinion, gave its
blessing to controversial tactics used last year by the
F.B.I in urging local police departments to report
suspicious activity at political and antiwar demonstrations
to counterterrorism squads. The F.B.I. bulletins that
relayed the request for help detailed tactics used by
demonstrators - everything from violent resistance to
Internet fund-raising and recruitment. 

In an internal complaint, an F.B.I. employee charged that
the bulletins improperly blurred the line between lawfully
protected speech and illegal activity. But the Justice
Department's Office of Legal Counsel, in a five-page
internal analysis obtained by The New York Times,

The office, which also made headlines in June in an opinion
- since disavowed - that authorized the use of torture
against terrorism suspects in some circumstances, said any
First Amendment impact posed by the F.B.I.'s monitoring of
the political protests was negligible and constitutional. 

The opinion said: "Given the limited nature of such public
monitoring, any possible 'chilling' effect caused by the
bulletins would be quite minimal and substantially
outweighed by the public interest in maintaining safety and
order during large-scale demonstrations." 

Those same concerns are now central to the vigorous efforts
by the F.B.I. to identify possible disruptions by
anarchists, violent demonstrators and others at the
Republican National Convention, which begins Aug. 30 and is
expected to draw hundreds of thousands of protesters. 

In the last few weeks, beginning before the Democratic
convention, F.B.I. counterterrorism agents and other
federal and local officers have sought to interview dozens
of people in at least six states, including past protesters
and their friends and family members, about possible
violence at the two conventions. In addition, three young
men in Missouri said they were trailed by federal agents
for several days and subpoenaed to testify before a federal
grand jury last month, forcing them to cancel their trip to
Boston to take part in a protest there that same day. 

Interrogations have generally covered the same three
questions, according to some of those questioned and their
lawyers: were demonstrators planning violence or other
disruptions, did they know anyone who was, and did they
realize it was a crime to withhold such information. 

A handful of protesters at the Boston convention were
arrested but there were no major disruptions. Concerns have
risen for the Republican convention, however, because of
antiwar demonstrations directed at President Bush and
because of New York City's global prominence. 

With the F.B.I. given more authority after the Sept. 11
attacks to monitor public events, the tensions over the
convention protests, coupled with the Justice Department's
own legal analysis of such monitoring, reflect the fine
line between protecting national security in an age of
terrorism and discouraging political expression. 

F.B.I. officials, mindful of the bureau's abuses in the
1960's and 1970's monitoring political dissidents like the
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., say they are confident
their agents have not crossed that line in the lead-up to
the conventions. 

"The F.B.I. isn't in the business of chilling anyone's
First Amendment rights," said Joe Parris, a bureau
spokesman in Washington. "But criminal behavior isn't
covered by the First Amendment. What we're concerned about
are injuries to convention participants, injuries to
citizens, injuries to police and first responders." 

F.B.I. officials would not say how many people had been
interviewed in recent weeks, how they were identified or
what spurred the bureau's interest. 

They said the initiative was part of a broader, nationwide
effort to follow any leads pointing to possible violence or
illegal disruptions in connection with the political
conventions, presidential debates or the November election,
which come at a time of heightened concern about a possible
terrorist attack. 

F.B.I. officials in Washington have urged field offices
around the country in recent weeks to redouble their
efforts to interview sources and gather information that
might help to detect criminal plots. The only lead to
emerge publicly resulted in a warning to authorities before
the Boston convention that anarchists or other domestic
groups might bomb news vans there. It is not clear whether
there was an actual plot. 

The individuals visited in recent weeks "are people that we
identified that could reasonably be expected to have
knowledge of such plans and plots if they existed," Mr.
Parris said. 

"We vetted down a list and went out and knocked on doors
and had a laundry list of questions to ask about possible
criminal behavior," he added. "No one was dragged from
their homes and put under bright lights. The interviewees
were free to talk to us or close the door in our faces." 

But civil rights advocates argued that the visits amounted
to harassment. They said they saw the interrogations as
part of a pattern of increasingly aggressive tactics by
federal investigators in combating domestic terrorism. In
an episode in February in Iowa, federal prosecutors
subpoenaed Drake University for records on the sponsor of a
campus antiwar forum. The demand was dropped after a
community outcry. 

Protest leaders and civil rights advocates who have
monitored the recent interrogations said they believed at
least 40 or 50 people, and perhaps many more, had been
contacted by federal agents about demonstration plans and
possible violence surrounding the conventions and other
political events. 

"This kind of pressure has a real chilling effect on
perfectly legitimate political activity," said Mark
Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil
Liberties Union of Colorado, where two groups of political
activists in Denver and a third in Fort Collins were
visited by the F.B.I. "People are going to be afraid to go
to a demonstration or even sign a petition if they
justifiably believe that will result in your having an
F.B.I. file opened on you." 

The issue is a particularly sensitive one in Denver, where
the police agreed last year to restrictions on local
intelligence-gathering operations after it was disclosed
that the police had kept files on some 3,000 people and 200
groups involved in protests. 

But the inquiries have stirred opposition elsewhere as

In New York, federal agents recently questioned a man whose
neighbor reported he had made threatening comments against
the president. He and a lawyer, Jeffrey Fogel, agreed to
talk to the Secret Service, denying the accusation and
blaming it on a feud with the neighbor. But when agents
started to question the man about his political
affiliations and whether he planned to attend convention
protests, "that's when I said no, no, no, we're not going
to answer those kinds of questions," said Mr. Fogel, who is
legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights in
New York. 

In the case of the three young men subpoenaed in Missouri,
Denise Lieberman, legal director for the American Civil
Liberties Union in St. Louis, which is representing them,
said they scrapped plans to attend both the Boston and the
New York conventions after they were questioned about
possible violence. 

The men are all in their early 20's, Ms. Lieberman said,
but she would not identify them. 

All three have taken part in past protests over American
foreign policy and in planning meetings for convention
demonstrations. She said two of them were arrested before
on misdemeanor charges for what she described as minor
civil disobedience at protests. 

Prosecutors have now informed the men that they are targets
of a domestic terrorism investigation, Ms. Lieberman said,
but have not disclosed the basis for their suspicions.
"They won't tell me," she said. 

Federal officials in St. Louis and Washington declined to
comment on the case. Ms. Lieberman insisted that the men
"didn't have any plans to participate in the violence, but
what's so disturbing about all this is the pre-emptive
nature - stopping them from participating in a protest
before anything even happened." 

The three men "were really shaken and frightened by all
this," she said, "and they got the message loud and clear
that if you make plans to go to a protest, you could be
subject to arrest or a visit from the F.B.I." 



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