The Federal Bureau of Investigation has collected extensive information on the tactics, training, and organization of antiwar demonstrators and has advised local law enforcement to report suspicious activity at protests to FBI counterterrorism squads, the New York Times reports. An FBI memo to local police last month before antiwar demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco detailed how protesters have sometimes used “training camps” to rehearse for demonstrations, the Internet to raise money, and gas masks to defend against tear gas, the Times says. The memorandum analyzed both lawful and illegal activities, like using fake documentation to get into a secured site.
FBI officials told the Times that the intelligence gathering was aimed at identifying anarchists and “extremist elements,” not at monitoring the political speech of law-abiding protesters.
The initiative has won the support of some local police, but some critics said it could signal a return to the abuses of the 1960’s and 1970’s, when under director J. Edgar Hoover, agents spied on protesters like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “The F.B.I. is dangerously targeting Americans who are engaged in nothing more than lawful protest and dissent,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The line between terrorism and legitimate civil disobedience is blurred, and I have a serious concern about whether we’re going back to the days of Hoover.” Herman Schwartz, a law professor at American University, said the intelligence collection probably is legal but, “As a matter of principle, it has a very serious chilling effect on peaceful demonstration.”
“We’re not concerned with individuals who are exercising their constitutional rights,” one FBI official said. “But it’s obvious that there are individuals capable of violence at these events. We know that there are anarchists that are actively involved in trying to sabotage and commit acts of violence at these different events, and we also know that these large gatherings would be a prime target for terrorist groups.”