On Aug. 16, The New York Times revealed that agents from the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force had been interrogating political demonstrators, and their families and friends as well, around the country in an attempt to prevent disturbances at the Republican National Convention in New York City this week. In a few cases, the Times reported, the FBI had even subpoenaed protesters to try to learn of possible disruptions, and some activists said they had felt menaced by the bureau’s tactics. The Times editorial page attacked the DOJ in a scathing commentary the next day, saying, “The knock on the door from government investigators asking about political activities is the stuff of totalitarian regimes.”
Three House Judiciary Committee Democrats, Reps. John Conyers of Michigan, Robert C. Scott of Virginia and Jerrold Nadler of New York, called for an investigation of the FBI probe, saying in an Aug. 17 letter to the Justice Department’s inspector general that the FBI “appears to be engaged in systematic political harassment and intimidation of legitimate anti-war protesters.” But Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to concede that the bureau had attempted to trample on free speech. At a news conference on Aug. 20, he maintained that the JTTF had only interviewed protesters in the Midwest whom they thought were planning to firebomb media trucks at the Democratic convention or might have known about such plans. The Associated Press, however, reported that the people interviewed by the FBI told the American Civil Liberties Union that the agents never asked about a firebombing plot.
A Capital Region antiwar protester was evidently among those contacted by the FBI a few weeks ago. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the activist said she received a phone call from a man who gave his name and identified himself as a federal agent. He then asked her if she was going to New York City to demonstrate this week, whom she was going with, and if she would be traveling by bus. Declining to answer his questions, she told him she would consent to an interview if a lawyer were present. At that, the caller concluded the conversation. “These are scary times we live in, and I think this an effort to intimidate people from protesting,” she said.
Melanie Trimble, director of the Capital Region chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said no one has to talk to the FBI unless they are arrested. She added that the NYCLU is compiling a list of attorneys willing to act as witnesses to FBI political questionings. (Anyone wishing such assistance should call 436-8594.)
An FBI spokesman, Joe Parris, denied that the bureau was trying to silence dissent. “The FBI is not interviewing protesters. The FBI does not set about to stifle free speech or infringe upon anyone’s First Amendment rights or freedom to protest. We interviewed a small number of people who we had reason to believe may have knowledge of planned criminal acts at a number of designated national security events,” he said, and explained that the events in question were the two national political conventions, the presidential and vice-presidential debates, and the November elections. Parris also asserted that the number of interviewees was “under 25,” and added that the agents had spoke to anarchists from “three Midwestern states” who “might” be planning attacks with Molotov cocktails, slingshots, or large-capacity water pistols filled with bleach or urine. He would not comment when asked if the FBI had contacted any protestors in the Albany area.
According to the Web site of the Democracy Now! radio program, civil-rights groups have actually reported 40 to 50 cases of documented JTTF questionings, and The New York Times reported on Aug. 17 that the interviews had occurred in six states, including New York.
Lawrence Wittner, a professor of history at SUNY Albany who studies mass protest movements and author of Toward Nuclear Abolition, condemned the FBI’s tactics. “With the organizers of the 9/11 attacks and of the subsequent anthrax attacks still on the loose, it’s astonishing that the FBI is spending its time harassing peaceful protesters,” he commented. Paul Tick, a leader of Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace, agreed, saying, “It is sad that we go to Iraq supposedly to bring the people their liberty while here at home, we suppress it. I wonder what George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine and John Adams would say about the Bush administration’s attempts to erode the rights they fought for.”
List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser
©2004 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.