Ashcroft Defends Domestic Spying On
Civil Liberties Groups Outraged Over Justice Dep’t Efforts to Squelch Political
FBI agents have triggered controversy by
“interviewing” and shadowing political activists around the nation in recent
weeks. Civil liberties advocates charge it is part of a government campaign to
intimidate and silence protesters who are expected to turn out for the
Republican National Convention in New York beginning Aug. 30.
On Aug. 20, Attorney General John Ashcroft
defended the FBI harassment at a press conference. Ashcroft claimed agents
questioned only individuals the government believed were plotting to firebomb
media vehicles or who might have known about such plots.
Scoffed Rachael Perrotta, one of the protesters
interviewed by the feds: “They don’t want activists getting their message out.
I think it’s a smear campaign by the government to discredit the protest
Perrotta is managing media coverage for an
antiwar, anti-Bush march from Boston to New York called “DNC2RNC,” which began
after the Democratic convention.
“I am a media relations coordinator. The thought
that I would be involved in anything like this is just so preposterous,” said
Perrotta said she never heard any political
activists talk about using molotov cocktails or other bombs. “This includes
anarchist groups and liberal groups,” she said. She accused the FBI of “spreading
No groups have threatened to use bombs or any
other weapons at the Republican Convention. Authorities anticipate that
hundreds of thousands of protesters will descend upon the city.
“This sounds like classic fear-mongering by law
enforcement on the eve of a major protest,” said Bill Dobbs, spokesman for
United for Peace and Justice, a national coalition of more than 800 antiwar
groups whose 250,000 members plan to march across New York on Aug. 29.
Other activists questioned Ashcroft’s assertion
that the FBI interviewed only a “handful” of protesters. Ann Beeson, associate
legal director of American Civil Liberties Union, said she knew of dozens of
interrogations in Colorado alone, with more in Missouri, New York and
The FBI activities have gone well beyond
“conducting interviews.” Three activists from Missouri were followed by four
FBI cars for five days, said Denise Lieberman, legal director of the ACLU of
Eastern Missouri. It “was very intimidating and, I think, done with the intent
of frightening them,” she said.
Still others are concerned about agents
provocateur in their midst inciting violence.
U.S. law enforcement has a history of infiltrating
right-wing and left-wing groups that protest the government. The 1960s COINTELPRO
program, run by the FBI, is perhaps the most well-known example of this,
whereupon federal agents worked with local law enforcement to infiltrate groups
for the purpose of disrupting, discrediting and otherwise neutralizing
organizations and individuals.