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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Big Brother

Air Date: Week of

Following 9/11, Congress passed the U.S. Patriot Act to expand the government’s power to monitor U.S. citizens in its fight against terrorism. Recent documents obtained from the FBI by the American Civil Liberties Union show that those expanded powers are being used to monitor environmental and animal rights groups. Host Jeff Young talks with the ACLU’s Ann Beeson about what the documents show about the FBI’s activities.


YOUNG: Spying is coming under increasing scrutiny here in Washington after disclosures that the Bush administration approved the secret monitoring of some U.S. citizens. The coming session of Congress will likely bring hearings into whether such tactics are legal and appropriate.

Another revelation of government monitoring is also making waves among Washington’s environmental groups. Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act show the FBI’s counter-terrorism agents have been keeping tabs on some environment and animal rights groups.

Joining us now to talk about that is Ann Beeson, associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Ms. Beeson, welcome to Living on Earth.

BEESON: Thank you.

YOUNG: A lot of the information in these documents, it just doesn’t seem like it would have much to do with national security. There’s some stuff in there about a training workshop for the demonstration group Bread & Puppets, for example. There’s one agent who listens to a member of the Catholic Workers Group, an anti-poverty group, at a demonstration and takes notes, I’m quoting here: “In the author’s opinion, CWG advocates a communist-style distribution of resources.” Now, why on earth would the FBI care about this stuff in the first place? And what does it have to do with fighting terrorism?

BEESON: Well, that’s exactly our question. There may be some, you know, disagreement over whether and to what extent the FBI should investigate, you know, the illegal boarding of ships by Greenpeace. But do we really want them using counter-terrorism agents to do that?

There’s another document that is a history that’s titled “A History Background of the Environmental Rights Movement,” and that document says that, quote, “eco-terror is any crime committed in the name of saving nature.” That would mean any time the smallest law is broken – for example, someone steps onto a military base illegally – that that person has committed an eco-terrorism crime.

And that seems very dangerous. It makes one think about decades ago when it became very routine for the FBI to label very legitimate, peaceful, antiwar and civil rights groups “communists” just so they could again use a wider range of powers to investigate and infiltrate and monitor them.

YOUNG: Yeah, the label “terror” certainly carries a heavy stigma, at the least.

BEESON: Exactly. And not just a heavy stigma, but there’s a real question as to whether by using that label they then have available to them even broader powers. And yet, in the discussions about the USA Patriot Act and other expanded surveillance and monitoring powers that the government has, the government and the Justice Department and the president have emphasized repeatedly to the American public that it’s using these new powers only to investigate “real terrorists,” by which, I think, most Americans mean, you know, members of Al-Qaeda. I don’t think that most Americans think that the FBI is using its Patriot Act powers to look at Greenpeace and PETA.

YOUNG: Hmm. I spent some time reading over the documents pertaining to Greenpeace – there’s, I don’t know, 1,900 or so pages that I was flipping through – and a lot of it deals with the documentation of a demonstration that Greenpeace and other groups carried out near the Vandenberg Air Force base where they apparently tried to trespass in order to disrupt a missile test. Is that a legitimate reason then for the FBI to be monitoring or investigating what these groups are doing? I mean, that’s a federal military base there.

BEESON: Yes, that’s right. And again, I think here we have to distinguish among the various documents that we received. In some cases we would have no quarrel with some investigation by law enforcement into, you know, breaking the law. The question really is whether we want the FBI to use its counter-terrorism resources, and the great deal of additional power that it gains when it begins to label a group a “terrorist group,” against peaceful protest groups like Greenpeace.

YOUNG: You know, another thing I noticed is in the pages that I would call general background-type information on groups like Greenpeace, the FBI seemed to rely pretty heavily on research done by a couple of think tanks that are very conservative, pro-business, anti-regulation in their mindset and their mission. There’s the Capital Research Center, an outgrowth of the Heritage Foundation, and a couple of others who generated a lot of that information that the FBI apparently relied on. What do you make of that connection there?

BEESON: Well, I think that, unfortunately, it’s another bit of information that might lead one to conclude that the FBI is not, in fact, just doing this to investigate crimes, but is doing it purposefully to suppress legitimate dissent and criticism of the administration’s policies. There’s another example, actually, in one of the Greenpeace-related documents. What the document says is that the FBI is concerned that the protest itself could harm the public image of the missile defense system. Now, to me that sounds very much like the FBI trying to assist the administration in preventing criticism of its positions and programs from getting out there in the public. And that’s a very dangerous job for the FBI to be engaged in.

YOUNG: A lot of this is heavily whited-out or redacted, but just from what you can read on some of the pages that are otherwise completely blank it seems pretty clear that the FBI must have had someone working inside, for example, Greenpeace, and other local groups, in order to know ahead of time about upcoming demonstrations. Do you know anything from this about how the FBI did its monitoring?

BEESON: Well, we definitely know that they used confidential informants inside the organizations. That is another very disturbing revelation from these documents. It’s not just that they are investigating, you know, crimes after the fact, which might be legitimate, but that they have made a decision to place an informant inside advocacy groups. We know from history that this is a very dangerous activity for the FBI to engage in. I mean, it did this in many civil rights groups and many antiwar groups in the 60s and 70s, and not just for the purpose of monitoring the activities of the groups but also to actually disrupt the advocacy that the groups were engaged in.

YOUNG: Hmm. Very interesting. And you’re not done with this, so likely more boxes of documents on the way, huh?

BEESON: Absolutely, and we’re very determined to look through every page and to release to the public those documents that show that the FBI may be up to no good.

YOUNG: Ann Beeson is associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Thanks for joining us.

BEESON: Thank you.

[MUSIC: Tears For Fears “Change” from ‘The Hurting’ (UMG Recordings – 2001)]

YOUNG: We asked the FBI about its surveillance, monitoring and infiltration of environmental groups. Agency spokesperson Bill Carter responded. Quote:

“If an individual or organization is committing or conspiring to commit an act of violence for a cause, we consider that a terrorist activity. That is the definition of terrorism. Obviously, we are more concerned about international terrorism. We are not concerned about an individual or organization’s beliefs.”



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