The American Civil Liberties Union is accusing the Federal Bureau of Investigation of working closely with local police departments around the nation to create a vast domestic spying network that focuses on peaceful activists, wrongly branding them terrorists.
ACLU chapters in several states, including Colorado, simultaneously filed Freedom of Information Act requests last week on behalf of dozens of individuals and organizations that allege federal agents are monitoring them.
A threat to liberty
Bill Sulzman, a Colorado Springs activist, calls the effort a "counter-attack to head off any further erosion of First Amendment rights."
Sulzman and his group, Citizens for Peace in Space, are among 10 individuals and 16 organizations in Colorado with evidence that police agencies in Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder and Golden gathered information on their political activities and sent it to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Denver. The Denver division is one of 66 such FBI task forces that investigate terrorist activities around the nation.
Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, noted his organization requested the documents because the FBI's actions pose a threat to the First Amendment.
The FBI in Denver did not return phone calls seeking comment on the allegations.
However, last year, Ann Atanasio, a Denver FBI spokeswoman, confirmed that the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Denver in 2002 asked Colorado Springs police to identify environmentalists at The Broadmoor hotel.
The FBI "requested information in which there was a legitimate law-enforcement interest," Atanasio told the Independent in May of 2003.
'It just got crazy around here!'
Colorado Springs police would neither confirm nor deny whether they sent information about other activists to the FBI. Police Lt. Rafael Cintron declined further comment, stating the matter appeared to be one between the ACLU and FBI.
But documents indicate connections between Colorado Springs police and a central figure in the allegations -- Tom Fisher, a Denver police officer who is assigned to work full time with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. A fax dated June 25, 2002, from Colorado Springs police intelligence analyst Jodie Furlong to the Denver Police Department, included the license plates and names of more than 30 participants in a protest against the timber industry during a conference held at The Broadmoor.
"Here are the vehicles -- sorry about the delay," Furlong wrote. "It just got crazy around here all of a sudden! You can relate to that!! Tell Fisher I'm sorry."
Kirsten Atkins, an environmentalist from Crested Butte and member of Ancient Forest Rescue, a group that advocates for forest preservation and roadless areas, said she was among those who attended the protest and whose name was sent to the FBI. The event, attended by about 30 environmentalists, was mostly peaceful, though three participants were arrested for hanging a banner from a hotel window.
"It certainly wasn't terrorism," Atkins said. "What's concerning about this is that it can have a chilling effect on democracy. People won't want to put themselves out there."
The documentation comes from Denver's so-called "spy files" that were kept on peaceful activists by Denver police. In 2002, that city's police agreed to stop keeping such files as part of a settlement to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.
The city of Colorado Springs, however, has never formally addressed the issue of police spying on local peace activists, including possible links to the FBI.
Documents indicate that as long ago as 1992, Furlong and Colorado Springs police Detective Howard Black participated in regional meetings with several law-enforcement agencies to share information on "extremist" groups, including environmentalists, American Indian activists, "leftists" and white supremacists.
Other documents obtained elsewhere add to the ACLU's contention that the FBI gathers information on political protesters, said Silverstein. During an hour-long PowerPoint presentation to the media last week, Silverstein cited an October 2003 FBI intelligence bulletin sent to various law-enforcement agencies. It tells local police to be "alert" for "possible indicators of protest activity" and to "report any potentially illegal acts to the nearest FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force."
The document, appeared to be a "standing invitation" to keep tabs on activists, Silverstein said.
Peace becomes terrorism
Sulzman, meanwhile, is certain the FBI has gathered information about him. The peace activist was stopped by police in 2002 and overheard officers during a routine radio check noting that the FBI considered him part of a "terrorist" organization.
He agreed that some people might be inclined to tolerate the FBI's gathering of information on peaceful citizens in the aftermath of 9/11. But he couldn't see how such intelligence gathering is useful in the war on terror. He says preserving the freedoms of the First Amendment, including the right to demonstrate against the government's policies, are at issue.
If the FBI goes unchecked, he said, "we'll have fewer and fewer opportunities to practice free speech."