Mar. 15, 2006 – Newly released government documents reveal not only that federal law enforcement agencies monitored nonviolent activists in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but also that agents may have based their reporting and surveillance on ethnic prejudice.
Previously released documents showed the FBI was maintaining files on various anti-war groups across the country, but the American Civil Liberties Union, says the latest files represent the first concrete evidence that the Bureau is spying on activist groups solely based on their opposition to the war in Iraq.
The documents detail surveillance of the Thomas Merton Center (TMC) for Peace & Justice, which the FBI acknowledges is a pacifist organization.
One of the memos, dated November 29, 2002, bears the subject heading, "To report the results of investigation of Pittsburgh anti-war activity." It details how the TMC was "holding daily leaflet-distribution activities in downtown Pittsburgh" in opposition to the impending war on Iraq.
The memo also notes that the Center organized an annual event at the local Islamic center to promote cross-cultural understanding.
The author of the memo, a special agent whose name was blocked out by government censors, seems especially fixated on Muslim or Middle Eastern involvement in Center activities. The agent notes that the TMCâ€™s director told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review that several Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent regularly attend meetings at the Center.
The author of the memo also describes how the FBI photographed people leafleting in Pittsburgh and writes that the pictures "are being reviewed by Pittsburgh IT specialists." And, wrote the agent: "One female leaflet distributor, who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, inquired if [the photographer] was an FBI agent. No other TMC participants appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent."
Another document, titled "International Terrorism Matters," is a memo from the Pittsburgh Division Joint Terrorism Task Force describing how the TMC advertised local and national anti-war demonstrations on its website. At the bottom of the document the author writes, "The above information is for your use and any action deemed appropriate."
A final document, the contents of which are almost completely redacted, appears to suggest that the FBI used confidential informants to gather information on the Thomas Merton Center.
The document contains four sections, each attributed to a source whose name is not disclosed. The first one, dated March 23, 2005, reads "Source, who is not in a position to testify, provided the following information: [redacted] the Thomas Merton Center. [redacted] Source observed [redacted].
Defending its spying, FBI special agent Bill Crowley said in a statement that the agency "was acting with all appropriate investigative authorities" and that it destroyed the photographs of leafletters when it determined they were of no value.
In response to the documents, Jim Kleissler, executive director of the Thomas Merton Center, said in a press statement: "Our members were simply offering leaflets to passersby, legally and peacefully, and now theyâ€™re being investigated by a counterâ€“terrorism unit. Something is seriously wrong in how our government determines who and what constitutes terrorism when peace activists find themselves targeted."