Two recently surfaced documents show that the agency has been gathering information on protesters on a much broader scale and that it has even developed a program to teach local law-enforcement officers how to counter "criminal protest tactics."
The revelations -- contained in both a confidential memorandum made public last month by the New York Times and in another document obtained by the Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union -- have increased suspicion among civil-liberties advocates that the FBI has returned to its past, discredited practice of keeping tabs on domestic dissenters.
Critics say the information also raises questions about the FBI's priorities because it shows that agents assigned to anti-terror units, known as Joint Terrorism Task Forces, are spending their time targeting political protesters.
"All over the country, these FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces are interested not only in what we think of as 'terrorist' activity, but they're also interested in public expressions of any kind of dissent," said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU. "They're gathering lots of information about perfectly lawful, legitimate exercises of First Amendment rights."
An FBI spokeswoman, meanwhile, said the agency's efforts focus on protesters who may commit acts of violence and who might fit the description of "domestic terrorists."
"We're trying to keep things peaceful," said the spokeswoman, Ann Atanasio. "We're trying to prevent unlawful acts."
Targeting peace protesters
But evidence shows the FBI has gathered information on nonviolent protesters.
The agency's surveillance of demonstrators was first reported by the Independent in May, when it was revealed that an agent at the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Denver had sought and obtained information about an environmental demonstration outside The Broadmoor hotel last year.
At the agent's request, Colorado Springs police provided him with information about the identities of numerous demonstrators. Though a few were arrested for property damage, the vast majority of the protesters had done nothing illegal, and none committed any violent crimes.
Evidence has since surfaced showing that the Denver Joint Terrorism Task Force has also gathered information on nonviolent protesters in Denver and Boulder.
And on Nov. 23, the New York Times revealed that the FBI has, in fact, been spying on protesters nationwide. A confidential "intelligence bulletin" obtained by the newspaper shows that the agency has collected extensive information on the activities of anti-war demonstrators.
The memo, issued by the FBI on Oct. 15, discusses protesters' tactics and asks local law-enforcement agencies to report any "potentially illegal acts" by anti-war activists.
The training manual
Apparently using the information it has gathered on protesters, the FBI has even issued a training manual that teaches police how to counter protesters' tactics.
In a written statement recently obtained by the Colorado ACLU, an agent of the Denver Joint Terrorism Task Force describes how he has used the manual to instruct local law-enforcement officers.
"Beginning in 2001, I began using a training manual created by the U.S. government, which identifies civil disturbance and criminal protest tactics and instructs on how to respond to those tactics," states the agent, Tom Fisher. The manual, he states, is "part of a program offered by the United States government on criminal protest tactics."
According to the statement, the training manual is "law-enforcement sensitive" and not to be released to the public.
Fisher also states that he has been teaching the Denver Police Department about "terrorist issues," including "criminal tactics of protest extremists."
Silverstein, of the Colorado ACLU, says Fisher appears to be confusing political protests with terrorism.
"In the FBI's zeal to catch real terrorists, they're also busily gathering information about the people who disagree with U.S. government policy," Silverstein said.
Spying never stopped
A spokesman for the Colorado Springs Police Department said he's not sure whether the department received the Oct. 15 FBI memo. "We have no record of receiving that intelligence bulletin, although that's not to say we didn't," said the spokesman, Lt. Skip Arms.
Springs police have not received training from Fisher, though they do use a manual titled Civil Disturbance and Criminal Tactics of Protest Extremists, Arms said.
"It's something that our tactical people would look at and compare to their tactics," he said.
Arms said he doesn't know where the department obtained the manual or who authored it. The introduction states that it is "the result of an extensive interagency collaboration to address a surge of protest activity worldwide," but nothing in it indicates specifically that it was developed by the U.S. government, he said.
Arms declined to provide a copy of the manual, saying the Colorado Springs city attorney's office has advised him that it is not a public document.
Meanwhile, Springs activists who have long been the targets of surveillance say the latest revelations are worrisome but not unexpected.
"It doesn't surprise me in the least," said Mary Lynn Sheetz, a veteran local peace activist. "All those organizations have been spying on citizens for as long as I've been involved [in anti-war activities]."
Ten years ago, Sheetz received copies of FBI files detailing her political activities in the early 1970s. The files were compiled as part of the agency's COINTELPRO program, which for decades gathered intelligence on thousands of domestic dissenters, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The program was banned following congressional hearings in 1976, but Sheetz says she doesn't believe the spying ever stopped.
-- Terje Langeland
The FBI's Oct. 15 bulletin about anti-war protesters can be viewed at www.aclu.org. Agent Tom Fisher's statement revealing a U.S. government program to counter protesters is available at www.coloradoaclu.org/spy files/fbifiles.htm.
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