On the heels of a series of FBI raids on anti-war activists, an FBI whistleblower and constitutional rights groups are calling out the agency for overstepping its bounds, fearing that its increased powers could infringe on First Amendment rights and silence dissent.
Agents searched the homes of anti-war activists in Chicago, Minneapolis, Michigan and Durham, North Carolina in the last two weeks of September, along with the offices of the Minnesota Anti-War Committee, confiscating computers, cell phones, large amounts of paper and financial records, according to the activists and their attorneys.
"The FBI raids seem to reflect the latest actions by a recidivist agency that has lost sight of its mission to protect public safety," Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and the People's Campaign for the Constitution told Truthout.
According to the subpoenas, the activists, who were involved in labor causes, the anti-war movement and the Arab American Action Network, are being investigated for contact they may have had with members of Hezbollah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The spokesman for the FBI in Minneapolis said, "the warrants are seeking evidence in support of an ongoing Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation into activities concerning the material support of terrorism."
All the individuals involved in the raids denied their connections to terrorist organizations, and said any meetings or contact they may have had with the groups were perfectly legal.
Jess Sundin, of the Minnesota Anti-War Committee, noted that when she met FARC rebels in Colombia in 2000, the Colombian government was holding peace talks with the rebels at a public forum, where she met them. Sundin said she has had no contact with FARC since.
The FBI has come under attack recently from a string of reports and investigations that showcase an unfair targeting of activists.
Just days before the raids of activists in the Midwest and North Carolina, the Department of Justice released a report finding that between 2001 and 2006, the FBI kept tabs on activists affiliated with Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), Catholic Workers and Quakers. According to the report, the agency improperly placed these individuals on terrorist watch lists, and gave inaccurate and misleading information to Congress and the public about its activities.
"The Bureau's standard for undercover activities is known neither by the public nor Congress," Buttar wrote in an op-ed in Truthout earlier this year. "Intelligence agencies may justifiably pursue clandestine activities, but should not operate according to secret rules - at least not in countries that claim to lead the free world."
The FBI disclosed part of its policy following a Freedom of Information Act request made by Buttar, but the section on undercover infiltration has remained secret.
A two-year Washington Post investigation, "Top Secret America," detailed the extent of domestic spying and found that the web it wove was so widespread it had become entirely unwieldy: "The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work."
James R. Clapper, then undersecretary of defense for intelligence and now director of national intelligence, told the investigators in June 2010, "There's only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all SAPs [Special Access Programs] - that's God."
Colleen Rowley, a former FBI agent and whistleblower, told Truthout it was "breathtaking to recognize the irony" of the raids on individuals involved in left-leaning, domestic, advocacy groups only days after the flurry of criticism against the agency's mode of operation.
Rowley, who left the FBI in 2004 after 24 years with the agency, said the blunders were part of a wider change in FBI rules and the ways it evaluates success.
Quantitative rather than qualitative evaluation now means that individual agents are under increased pressure to meet targets, Rowley said, which is evidenced by recent reports of FBI cheating on internal tests.
On September 27, 2010, an internal FBI investigation found widespread cheating on a test related to Bush-era guidelines on justification needed to target a domestic group. The investigators "found test-taking conduct that constituted cheating and abuse, such as the use of answer sheets when taking the exam," which Rowley considers further justification of the response: "Oh my gosh, how can they be continuing after this!"
The 2001 Patriot Act loosened restrictions on domestic information gathering by law enforcement agencies, but even these powers have been exploited by the FBI, notes Buttar - three separate reports in 2007, 2008 and 2010 document abuse of the powers extended by President George W. Bush after the attacks on 9/11.
Both Buttar and Rowley said that the erosion of FBI constraints reached a new level in 2008 - the Mukasey Guidelines, meant to provide consolidated standards for agents to follow, effectively switched the presumption of one of proving guilt to proving innocence.
FBI Director Robert Mueller testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that FBI agents could not exercise surveillance in the absence of "suspicion," but later amended his statement in a note to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois). In his note, according to The Associated Press, Mueller said that the FBI "must have a proper purpose before conducting surveillance, but suspicion of wrongdoing is not required."
Much of the FBI's abuses have been painted as overhangs of the Bush era, but Rowley notes that current president Barack Obama is a constitutional lawyer, and a Supreme Court case that she calls "the most recent nail in the coffin" was put through under the Obama administration.
The legal prohibitions in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project make it a crime to provide support, including humanitarian aid, literature distribution and political advocacy, to any groups that the United States government has designated as a "terrorist" group. The 12-year case, a challenge to the material support statute, was concluded this summer with the Supreme Court voting 6-to-3 that the statute's prohibitions on expert advice, training, service and personnel were not vague and did not violate speech rights.
But Buttar, Rowley and William Quigley, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said the loose definition of "material support" could criminalize political speech and humanitarian aid, and by extension, the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Quigley noted that the raids on anti-war activists "would have been thought totally ridiculous before the Supreme Court case."
"It is still ridiculous, but now also ominous. Whether this is a policy decision by the Department of Justice and the Obama administration or whether this is just a few over-zealous FBI agents we don't know yet," Quigley continued, "but unfortunately the people who are targeted are going to be the guinea pigs for the rest of us to find this out."
At a grand jury hearing held Tuesday in Chicago, the activists who had their homes raided refused to testify and assist the government investigation of their activities.
For Rowley, the focus of the raids on individuals who have been involved with anti-war movements indicates an extreme illogic in American national security policy - "the mentality to believe that if you are against the war on terror that somehow makes you a terrorist."
The raids on the homes of activists "did signal that the war on terror," Rowley said, "has now been turned inward on domestic advocacy groups."