Large Volume of F.B.I. Files Alarms U.S. Activist Groups
WASHINGTON, July 17 - The Federal Bureau of Investigation has collected at least 3,500 pages of internal documents in the last several years on a handful of civil rights and antiwar protest groups in what the groups charge is an attempt to stifle political opposition to the Bush administration.
The F.B.I. has in its files 1,173 pages of internal documents on the American Civil Liberties Union, the leading critic of the Bush administration's antiterrorism policies, and 2,383 pages on Greenpeace, an environmental group that has led acts of civil disobedience in protest over the administration's policies, the Justice Department disclosed in a court filing this month in a federal court in Washington.
The filing came as part of a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act brought by the A.C.L.U. and other groups that maintain that the F.B.I. has engaged in a pattern of political surveillance against critics of the Bush administration. A smaller batch of documents already turned over by the government sheds light on the interest of F.B.I. counterterrorism officials in protests surrounding the Iraq war and last year's Republican National Convention.
F.B.I. and Justice Department officials declined to say what was in the A.C.L.U. and Greenpeace files, citing the pending lawsuit. But they stressed that as a matter of both policy and practice, they have not sought to monitor the political activities of any activist groups and that any intelligence-gathering activities related to political protests are intended to prevent disruptive and criminal activity at demonstrations, not to quell free speech. They said there might be an innocuous explanation for the large volume of files on the A.C.L.U. and Greenpeace, like preserving requests from or complaints about the groups in agency files.
But officials at the two groups said they were troubled by the disclosure.
"I'm still somewhat shocked by the size of the file on us," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the A.C.L.U. "Why would the F.B.I. collect almost 1,200 pages on a civil rights organization engaged in lawful activity? What justification could there be, other than political surveillance of lawful First Amendment activities?"
Protest groups charge that F.B.I. counterterrorism officials have used their expanded powers since the Sept. 11 attacks to blur the line between legitimate civil disobedience and violent or terrorist activity in what they liken to F.B.I. political surveillance of the 1960's. The debate became particularly heated during protests over the war in Iraq and the run-up to the Republican National Convention in New York City last year, with the disclosures that the F.B.I. had collected extensive information on plans for protests.