Tim Vining, head of the Thomas Merton Center until 2005, says he had no cause to suspect the FBI was watching antiwar activists leafleting in Market Square on Nov. 29, 2002. But now that there's proof that agents in the Pittsburgh office were watching -- for no good reason -- he sees little reason to believe the government's explanation for why it happened.
Last month, the U.S. Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General released a report finding that the FBI had "no legitimate purpose" for monitoring the event, or carrying on surveillance of other local activists. The surveillance was an "ill-conceived make-work assignment," the report continues.
Vining and others see a darker agenda.
"Clearly our political stance was the reason" for the surveillance, says Vining.
The leafletters were promoting a January 2003 antiwar march, which drew 5,000 people to Oakland in a blizzard. The leafleting itself, meanwhile, drew the attention of an FBI agent, who photographed one of the participants.
Supposedly, the Merton Center itself was never under FBI investigation. But the Inspector General's report says the organization shows up in 38 separate FBI surveillance documents. Cases were also opened against members of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group, which has teamed with the Merton Center for protests and other activities. All that surveillance resulted in files labeled "terrorism," even though no one was even accused of a federal crime, the normal trigger for FBI involvement.
The Inspector General's report found that the FBI did not violate federal rules for investigations. But it also concludes that agents invented false reasons for watching Merton leafletters. First, agents claimed to be looking for associates of an Islamic Center of Pittsburgh official; later, they identified a specific target -- a Dallas-based suspect whom the report does not name.
An Islamic Center official would not comment on the report. Neither the FBI nor Pittsburgh police -- who reportedly aided the surveillance -- responded to a request for comment.
Nonetheless, the 209-page document says the FBI's actions were, at best, "speculation" or "an after-the-fact reconstruction." At worst, the agency's explanations were "deliberately misleading," and caused the FBI's then-director, Robert Mueller, to give false testimony to Congress about the reasons for the surveillance.
"People are being profiled for appearances and political beliefs," Vining asserts, noting the report's conclusion that an FBI agent photographed a leafletter because she "appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent."
"Which was ludicrous, because she isn't," says Pete Shell, co-founder of Merton's Anti-War committee that year, who was with the Market Square group.
The agent who watched the leafleting in Market Square later told investigators he'd asked for the assignment "to show his supervisor that he was 'earning his pay.'" The FBI could produce no proof "suggesting a basis for believing that any terrorism subjects were in fact associated with the Merton Center." And there was no reason to expect the Dallas suspect to be in Pittsburgh at all, the report says.
The report was prompted by Vining's February 2006 Freedom of Information Act request, which first produced the FBI files about the Market Square surveillance. But neither Shell nor Vining believes its conclusion that Merton was never specifically targeted.
"It looks like it was a bit of a cover-up," Shell says. The FBI surveillance was filed "under a counter-terrorism investigation, but they found absolutely no basis for terrorism, so they were covering their asses."
Pittsburgh Organizing Group was targeted, the report acknowledges.
Surveillance of POG began in August 2003, when it and the Merton Center planned protests in Miami against an international trade summit. Three agents visited Pittsburgh to identify "potentially destructive individuals." Local police showed them the home of "one of the POG's most vocal members," the report states, and "one of the POG's leaders," as well as the Merton Center. Police also reportedly provided information on 11 other POG members.
While POG has taken a public stance against property destruction and harming people, the FBI interpreted POG's call for direct-action protests as "code words" for crime.
Two POG members, and a third activist from out of town, personally came under investigation on Jan. 9, 2004, "under the classification for an act of domestic terrorism." The report does not identify them, referring to them only by pseudonyms.
That October, the FBI allegedly sent an informant to monitor POG's actions. (The informant was, apparently, the friend of an FBI agent's son -- a practice the report frowns upon.) Once again, the report concludes, agents discovered no federal crimes being planned. By early 2005, the cases against individual POG members were closed, and the general POG case was closed the next year.
And once again, the report adds, the surveillance was undertaken so agents could look busy. The report quotes an agent asserting, "[W]e are looking for work, which is why folks in POG even get on the radar."
POG members would not speculate on who, exactly, was under investigation. Long-time POG member Alex Bradley says the report can't be trusted. "We have no access to see any of the source documents, no direct, verifiable quotes from any of the principals, who are all anonymous; no way to verify the claims being made; and no effort was made to interview the other people involved. It's all hearsay."
He and Marie Skoczylas, another POG member since before the alleged surveillance, say they assume their anarchist group is always being watched, yet never let it affect their objectives or methods.
"Knowing what happens in terms of government repression of social movements, I assumed there would be people in [POG functions] gathering information," says Skoczylas. "The big lesson that comes out of this is to try to avoid repression without repressing yourself" by giving in to paranoia or finger-pointing.
"You can get outraged about it," says Bradley, but "[t]he important thing is to keep organizing." He disputes several of the report's contentions -- that POG ever discussed illegal actions at political conventions, for example. But he says, "It's clear from the entire report that they'd manufactured pretexts for having this investigation. Had it not been one thing, it would have been another.
"You can bet [other agencies] have been engaged in far worse for far longer, and every few years we're going to get revelations," he adds. The group is contemplating filing FOIA requests to learn more.
Indeed, activists note that the Inspector General's report justifies much of the FBI's activities. For example, while the report states that agents investigating POG found no evidence a crime was being planned, it adds that one could have been. And that was enough to justify the surveillance under the law's admittedly "low threshold."
Tim Vining, who moved to Canada in 2005, says he has "no illusion that activists in the United States have the freedoms we normally associate with democracies."
"The freedom and the rights we associate with democracies," Vining adds, "are not present in the United States for those who object to war."