Civil liberties groups and politicians raised the prospect Sunday that FBI monitoring of anti-war protesters could stifle legitimate dissent and jeopardize people's First Amendment right to speak their mind.
"What is the chilling effect that will be felt by Americans all across the country if they think they will come under FBI scrutiny just by going to a protest?" said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
An FBI official on Sunday denied any effort to collect intelligence on people exercising their rights to free speech. The official said the effort was aimed at providing police around the country with information about how such protests should be handled, including the possibility of violence.
In one of its weekly bulletins sent to thousands of law enforcement agencies nationwide, the FBI last month detailed some of the tactics used by anti-war protesters that police could expect at large rallies in San Francisco and Washington to protest the Iraq war. Past such bulletins, which usually concern terrorist threats and activities, also have discussed activities by such groups as environmental advocates and anti-globalization activists.
The bulletins are confidential, but, largely because of their wide dissemination, several have been obtained by The Associated Press and other media organizations. The New York Times first provided details Sunday about the October bulletin, which concerned the anti-war protests.
Among other things, the bulletin described how protesters plan their tactics at "training camps," how they use gas masks to defend against tear gas, and how some use fake identification to get into secure places. The document also says that while most such demonstrators are peaceful, protests such as those against the World Bank have turned violent in the past.
Critics called attention to a section of the bulletin that urges police to report suspicious or unlawful activity to their local Joint Terrorism Task Force, a multiagency group run by the FBI. ACLU's Romero said that has the effect of equating protest with terrorism and, more broadly, casts a pall of suspicion over anyone who disagrees with the Iraq war or other government anti-terrorism policies.
"There is a very clear difference between legitimate forms of civil disobedience and terrorism, and we have to keep that in mind," Romero said.
During the anti-war demonstrations of the Vietnam War era, in the late 1960s, the FBI undertook a broad program to spy on and neutralize what it called the "New Left," often translated into opponents of the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. "Cointelpro," for "counterintelligence programs," grew out of anti-communist spying of the 1950s and used shady or illegal tactics to counter terrorism and people who threatened terrorist violence.
Speaking Sunday in a televised interview, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said the story about the FBI showed him that the Bush administration is going to "extraordinary lengths" to attack anyone who disagrees with the Iraq war.
"That, I think, is fundamental flaw of this administration. It is absolutely outrageous in terms of what this country is about," Kennedy said. "How could we be fighting abroad to defend our freedoms and diminishing those freedoms here at home?"
The FBI official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the bureau is not collecting intelligence on protesters but wants to identify extremist elements, such as pro-environment organizations that destroy SUVs and anti-globalization groups that vandalize private property.
Most of the October bulletin, the official said, stemmed from publicly available material about the protesters and was intended ultimately to educate and inform local police about who is behind violent acts and how to stop them.