Report unveils improper FBI investigations on Greenpeace activists

by Michelle Frey

September 21, 2010

MichelleThe First Amendment gives American citizens the freedom of speech and the right to peaceably assemble. But, what happens when exercising these rights lands you in the middle of an FBI investigation and improperly puts you on a terrorist watch list? It sounds a like an episode of 24, but I assure you this isn’t fiction or fantasy.

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that the FBI improperly opened and extended investigations of some U.S. activist groups and put members of an environmental advocacy organization on a terrorist watch list, even though they were planning nonviolent civil disobedience.

Greenpeace appreciates the steps taken by the Office of the Inspector General to illuminate the nature of these improper investigations. But, it’s troubling that the FBI has been targeting peaceful protest, when our government should be supporting public participation, dissent, and first amendment rights.

Greenpeace has a long history of civil disobedience and believe that protest can effectively call attention to environmental crimes. If the FBI were more aware of Greenpeace’s peaceful history, they’d know that we’re dedicated to protecting people, not harming them, and this type of investigation is inappropriate for the nature of our work.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you

Between the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and 2006 (under the Bush Administration) there were “troubling” FBI practices in its monitoring of domestic groups. In some cases, agents began investigations of people affiliated with activist groups for “factually weak” reasons.

GreenpeaceIn July 2003 the Bush administration brought an unprecedented legal case against Greenpeace in an attempt to shut us down.  It was the first time ever in the United States that an organization was criminally prosecuted for the free speech activities of its supporters; in this case, a non-violent direct action against a shipment of mahogany which was itself illegal. Despite massive resources and truly strained legal maneuvering by the Justice Department, which attempted to prosecute Greenpeace under a century-old law barring prostitutes from boarding ships in port, a federal judge threw out the charges during trial in May 2004.

Having failed to shut Greenpeace down via the courts, the Bush Administration put their resources into spying on Greenpeace. The FBI has thousands of pages on Greenpeace, the ACLU and other organizations, but to date less than 20 pages have been received under Freedom of Information Act requests.

A classified FBI memorandum disclosed publicly in November 2003 revealed that the FBI has actually directed police to target and monitor lawful political demonstrations under the guise of fighting terrorism. Under policies put in place by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, the FBI—worked with local police through the controversial Joint Terrorism Task Forces—gathered information about people who expressed their disagreement with U.S. government policies—for no better reason than that they disagreed.

Greenpeace was not the only target of these improper FBI investigations, which included investigations of Thomas Merton Center of Pittsburgh, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and Catholic Worker. All of these groups are engaged in meaningful work that is part of constructive political dialogue. Greenpeace cannot protect the environment without a democracy that respects our civil liberties, allows for political dissent, and encourages free speech.

–Michelle Frey

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