New documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado show that FBI agents planned to monitor anti-war groups in Colorado Springs two years ago. The documents also indicate the bureau opened domestic terrorism investigations, which could have spanned months, on the groups.
The ACLU obtained the papers last week after filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI in December. The civil liberties organization made the query because it fears the nation's lead agency for combating terrorists inside U.S. borders -- the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force -- is failing to distinguish between peace activists and fanatics bent on harming the nation.
One two-page document, dated Feb. 11, 2003, was drafted by the FBI just days before thousands of people converged at Palmer Park to oppose the impending war in Iraq. The protests ended when city police arrested 35 people and used tear gas to disperse crowds.
The documents open domestic terrorism investigations of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center of Boulder, the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace of Denver and the Revolutionary Anti-War Response group. After viewing Web sites that promoted the demonstrations, an unnamed agent concluded that some activists were preparing to engage in civil disobedience, including blocking streets.
But fear of such activity doesn't justify opening a domestic terrorism or acts of terrorism investigation, says Mark Silverstein, legal director for ACLU of Colorado.
Such measures, he says, should be saved for secretive and violent extremists like Timothy McVeigh, the former Army soldier who was put to death after killing 167 people by exploding a truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
"I think that the FBI has clearly cast a wide net in its search for terrorists," Silverstein says.
Monique Kelso, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Denver, defends the FBI's efforts, adding that such monitoring will continue in situations where it is deemed warranted.
"It's our obligation to report credible threats of violence," Kelso says.
The heavily redacted documents, however, don't illuminate any specific threats.
They do show that on Feb. 15, 2003, an FBI special agent planned to monitor a parking lot in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood, where pink-and-black-clad activists were expected to gather for a carpool to the demonstrations in Colorado Springs.
The agent would observe protesters and communicate their size and "any relevant information" to an FBI observation team and Colorado Springs police.
The FBI blanked out portions of the documents for reasons ranging from assuring that information about individuals remains private to protecting the identities of agents and/or informants.
The ACLU of Colorado currently is representing 26 political organizations and activists to find out whether the FBI terrorism task force considers them terrorists. So far, Silverstein has received 15 documents from the FBI. He expects more in coming months.
Since last fall, Colorado Springs police have assigned an unnamed detective to work full-time with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. The purpose of the assignment is to enhance information-sharing between the agencies as they search for terrorists, says Sgt. David Whitlock of the department's intelligence unit.
He declined to comment on specific operations during the Palmer Park protest, but says the department limits its investigations to those involving potential criminal activity.
-- Michael de Yoanna