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by CURT ANDERSON, Associated Press Writer
Thursday, Nov. 27, 2003 at 11:28 AM
Senior FBI officials took the unusual step Tuesday of publicly declaring that agents are not using the war against terrorism as a cover to collect information on people who demonstrate against the government. (Warning: Homeland BU**SH** meter at critical.)
WASHINGTON - Senior FBI officials took the unusual step Tuesday of publicly declaring that agents are not using the war against terrorism as a cover to collect information on people who demonstrate against the government.
John Pistole, assistant FBI director for counterterrorism, told The Associated Press in an interview that recent allegations by civil liberties groups and some members of Congress about such an intelligence effort are "flat-out wrong."
"We have to have some type of predicate, some foundation, some basis for saying, 'This person poses some type of threat,'" Pistole said. "The endgame is not to collect intelligence for political purposes. The endgame is to prevent terrorism or criminal activity."
The FBI also posted on its Internet site a copy of a letter to the editor of The New York Times, which reported on the issue Sunday, as well as the text of a once-confidential FBI document about protests.
Some members of Congress are calling for hearings into an FBI bulletin sent to more than 17,000 state and local police agencies on Oct. 15. It warned about anti-war protests being planned for later that month in Washington and San Francisco and urged authorities to report suspicious behavior to the FBI.
"This report suggests that federal law enforcement may now be targeting individuals based on activities that are peaceful, lawful and protected under our Constitution," Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat who is running for president, said in a letter sent Monday to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups say the bulletin raises concerns that the FBI might return to the abuses of the 1960s and 1970s, when agents gathered intelligence intended to neutralize anti-Vietnam War protesters, civil rights demonstrators and other dissenters.
"Clearly the FBI is on the defensive," ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said. "The bulletin raises serious questions about whether previous statements from the FBI and Justice Department are to be believed."
The Oct. 15 bulletin is one of 97 weekly memos sent confidentially by the FBI to state and local police, as well as authorities in Canada, since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. These bulletins, many of which were reviewed Tuesday by the AP, have covered 135 topics, including 15 that have dealt with planned protests such as those at the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.
Bulletins about protests include details about potential demonstration tactics, especially violent acts ranging from vandalism to use of homemade bombs against police. The Oct. 15 bulletin urged police to "report any potentially illegal acts" to one of the 66 joint terrorism task forces overseen by the FBI.
Critics have seized on this line as an indication that the government is equating legitimate protest with support for terrorism in an attempt to squelch dissent against the Iraq war or opposition to overly broad government powers.
"Americans are fighting and dying in Iraq so people there can be free of tyranny, yet our own FBI is investigating our fellow Americans for exercising their freedoms," Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said in a letter Monday to Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The FBI, however, says it remains focused only on possible criminals or terrorists and that the terrorism task forces are not being used to collect intelligence on American dissenters. There are also concerns that terrorists might target protests with suicide bombers or use the crowds as cover to do surveillance of their own on government buildings or installations.
The FBI says it is keenly aware of a key portion of the national security investigative guidelines issued Nov. 5 by Ashcroft. The guidelines state that agents are prohibited from "investigating or maintaining information" on U.S. citizens "solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment" or other constitutional rights.
"I have made clear to Justice Department agents and lawyers that our efforts to protect the American people must respect and uphold the fundamental rights and liberties of every American," Ashcroft said in a September letter to Hatch.
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