U.S. News

Report criticizes FBI probes of activists

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The FBI improperly launched investigations of U.S. activists after the September 11 attacks, miscast peaceful protests as acts of terrorism and in one case prompted FBI Director Robert Mueller to provide inaccurate testimony to Congress, the Justice Department said on Monday.

But in a report by its inspector general, the Justice Department rejected long-standing allegations by civil liberties advocates and Democrats in Congress who claimed the FBI had targeted constitutionally protected activities as domestic surveillance operations expanded under the Bush administration between 2001 and 2006.

It also stopped short of accusing the FBI of lying to Congress, which is a felony, but blamed the agency for providing lawmakers and the public with “inaccurate and misleading” statements that suggested its surveillance of a 2002 antiwar rally in Pittsburgh was linked to a terrorism investigation.

Mueller was given the same false information and conveyed it to the Senate Judiciary Committee at a May 2006 hearing, the report by the Office of Inspector General said.

The report also said FBI investigators used scant evidence to place members of the environmental group Greenpeace on a federal terrorism watch list in a case involving protests planned against two corporations in Texas.

It criticized agency actions involving the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the social justice group known as the Catholic Worker.

Deputy FBI Director Timothy Murphy said the investigations were “generally predicated on concerns about potential criminal acts” by individuals.

In a statement accompanying the report, Murphy also regretted the inaccurate information he said the agency had provided to Congress and Mueller but offered no explanation.

“The OIG’s review did not indicate that the FBI targeted any of the groups for investigation on the basis of their First Amendment activities,” the Justice Department said.

“However, the OIG concluded that the factual basis for opening some of the investigations of individuals affiliated with the groups was factually weak,” it added.

The Justice Department called on the FBI to review its policies and actions, particularly in domestic terrorism cases at its Pittsburgh Field Division.

The inspector general said the most troubling case involved the decision to send an FBI agent to look for a suspect at a November 2002 antiwar rally sponsored by the Thomas Merton Center, a peace and social justice group in Pittsburgh.

The task was really “an ill-conceived make-work assignment” devised for a young agent on a slow work day, the report concluded.

“The OIG found no evidence that the FBI had any information at the time of the event that any terrorism subject would be present,” the Justice Department said.

The report said the FBI’s claims were likely an effort to justify the surveillance but the Justice Department could not identify those responsible for the story.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman