Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Inquiry Into F.B.I. Questioning Is Sought

The New York Times
August 18, 2004


WASHINGTON, Aug. 17 - Several Democratic lawmakers called on Tuesday for a Justice Department investigation into the Federal Bureau of Investigation's questioning of would-be demonstrators about possible violence at the political conventions, saying the questioning may have violated the First Amendment.

In a letter to the department's inspector general seeking an investigation, the three lawmakers said the F.B.I. inquiries appeared to represent "systematic political harassment and intimidation of legitimate antiwar protesters."

Signing the letter, which was prompted by an article on Monday in The New York Times, were Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and two other Democrats on the panel, Jerrold Nadler of New York and Robert C. Scott of Virginia.

Officials at the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation said they had not seen the letter and could not comment on its specific points. They defended the recent efforts by the bureau to question potential demonstrators around the country, saying the inquiries have been aimed solely at detecting and preventing violence at the Republican convention in New York and other major political events.

"The F.B.I. is not monitoring groups or interviewing individuals unless we receive intelligence that such individuals or groups may be planning violent and disruptive criminal activity or have knowledge of such activity," Cassandra M. Chandler, an assistant director of the bureau, said in a statement released late Monday.

After having received reports of possible violence, Ms. Chandler said, "the F.B.I. conducted interviews, within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution, in order to determine the validity of the threat information.''

"Violent acts,'' she added, "are not protected by the U.S. Constitution, and the F.B.I. has a duty to prevent such acts and to identify and bring to justice those who commit them."

In recent weeks, beginning last month before the Democratic National Convention in Boston, F.B.I. agents have contacted a number of people who have been active in political demonstrations in at least six states: Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri and New York. Many of those contacted have been active in past demonstrations, and agents have

asked whether they planned acts of violence at upcoming protests, whether they knew of anyone who did and whether they realized it was a crime to withhold such information.

Three young men in Missouri were also trailed by federal agents and subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury last month to tell what they knew of protest plans, forcing them to cancel a planned trip to Boston to participate in a demonstration there.

Officials of the F.B.I. would not say how many interviews the bureau had conducted. Civil rights advocates who have monitored the process estimated that at least several dozen people had received visits from agents at their homes and elsewhere in recent weeks. They said they were continuing to collect anecdotal information from demonstrators who had been approached by federal agents.

In a newly disclosed episode in Colorado, two college students said that an F.B.I. agent approached the faculty adviser for their campus group late last month and that the agent showed photographs of the students, Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said. The students did not want their names or college disclosed, Mr. Silverstein said, because "they're really scared out of their minds."

The inquiries were made after a legal opinion in April by the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department endorsed the constitutionality of past efforts by F.B.I. counterterrorism agents to solicit help from local police forces to gather intelligence on antiwar and political demonstrations. The opinion said any chilling of First Amendment rights was "quite minimal" and was "substantially outweighed" by concerns for public safety at big demonstrations.

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said on Tuesday that he was troubled by the pre-emptive nature of the inquiries, which he said had deterred some demonstrators from protesting.

"This looks like it's much more about intimidation and coercion than about criminal conduct," Mr. Romero said. "It's not enough for the F.B.I. to say that there's the potential for criminal activity. That's not the legal threshold, and if that were really the case, they could investigate anybody."

Representative Conyers and his colleagues raised similar concerns in their letter. They asked the inspector general to examine internal documents at the Justice Department and F.B.I. on political protests and to determine if the inquiries "focused on actual threats of violence or merely involved legitimate political and antiwar activity."