The FBI hasn't just monitored environmental and anti-war rallies in Colorado Springs; the agency also has opened official counterterrorism cases in connection with the demonstrations, using a definition of "terrorism" so vague it could fit almost any crime.
Records obtained by the Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and provided to the Independent, show the FBI approached an environmental protest at The Broadmoor hotel in 2002, and an anti-war rally in Palmer Park the following year, as "domestic terrorism" cases.
In investigating the anti-war rally, the FBI got some of its information regarding an activist Web site from the telecommunications company Nextel.
No acts of terrorism were committed in connection with either rally.
Blasting the government
The latest revelations about the FBI's surveillance are drawing sharp rebukes from the ACLU and from activists involved in the protests, who say the federal law enforcement agency is failing to distinguish between constitutionally protected free speech, misdemeanor crimes committed as civil disobedience, and terrorism.
The revelations also come just as a federal commission is blasting the U.S. government for having failed to make America significantly safer in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"The FBI counterterrorism people are spending time and taxpayer money going after people who are doing nothing more than exercising their First Amendment rights," says Mark Silverstein, legal director for the Colorado ACLU. "They should be going after terrorists."
Despite the documents detailing its specific involvement, the FBI continues to maintain that it does not engage in routine spying on activists.
"We don't monitor political protests," says Special Agent Monique Kelso, a spokeswoman for the agency's Denver office. "We don't just willy-nilly go out there and surveil and monitor."
The Independent first reported in 2003 that the FBI had gathered information about people at an environmental protest outside The Broadmoor in June 2002, which drew about 30 participants.
Three people were arrested for trespassing during the rally. However, afterward, Colorado Springs police cooperated with an FBI request to supply the license plate numbers and names of dozens of protesters who had committed no crimes.
Last week, the ACLU released documents obtained from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act that shed additional light on the monitoring of that event, as well as the Palmer Park anti-war rally in February 2003, in which thousands of people participated.
The documents show that the FBI opened "domestic terrorism" inquiries in both cases. Agents monitored activists who were planning to participate in the events and reported details such as how many people might join, where and when they planned to meet, and what kinds of activities they might engage in.
Reporting on preparations for the environmental rally, agents noted that activists were planning workshops on non-violent protest methods.
As the anti-war rally approached, agents believed some protesters might engage in civil disobedience by blocking traffic. Some of the protesters eventually did stop traffic, and Colorado Springs police responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets at them.
Crime and violence
Although some protesters were charged with misdemeanors in connection with both rallies, including trespassing, longtime local peace activist Bill Sulzman says he wonders how these crimes qualify as "terrorism."
The FBI treats political protests "as though they were somehow related to people who fly planes into buildings," Sulzman says.
Kelso, of the FBI, won't provide details on the Springs investigations. However, when asked what constitutes acts of "terrorism," Kelso presents a broad definition.
"They are acts of violence and acts of crime that are committed for a cause," Kelso says. "It could be a personal cause; it could be a monetary cause."
Asked whether that means any crime committed for monetary gain could be classified as terrorism, Kelso replies: "No, I did not say that. I said, a crime committed for a cause, a particular cause, whether it be a personal gain or personal cause, [by] a group of individuals."
The FBI only opens investigations into demonstrations if it receives information indicating a federal crime has been or might be committed, Kelso says. That, she says, means something beyond just trespassing or vandalism, minor crimes that are handled by local police.
Asked if an actual federal crime ever has been committed during a political protest monitored by the FBI in Colorado, Kelso concedes, "I can't think of an example."
However, she adds, "We have to check every single lead. It would be irresponsible for us not to check every criminal lead that comes in."
Kelso also won't say what information was obtained from Nextel, which since has merged with telecom giant Sprint. She confirms, however, that the FBI would need a court order to obtain private records from a corporation.
A spokeswoman for Sprint Nextel, Jennifer Walsh, told the Independent that she wouldn't be able to comment before press time because she needed to look into the matter.
Editor's note: FBI documents regarding the monitoring of activist rallies in Colorado Springs can be accessed by viewing the following links.
reference to letter DESCRIPTION: Fax from Springs police to FBI on environmental protesters. reference to letter DESCRIPTION: Fax of a FBI file on anti-war protest.pdf reference to letter DESCRIPTION: Fax of a FBI file on environmental protesters.pdf