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Iowa Activists Drew Extensive FBI Scrutiny

by William Petroski

The FBI's surveillance of a protest group in Iowa City prior to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., two years ago was far more extensive than initially reported, newly obtained FBI documents show.

Agents staked out the homes of political activists, secretly photographed and shot video of them, pored through their garbage, and studied their cell phone and motor vehicle records, according to records detailing the FBI's counterterrorism investigation.

Federal agents and other law enforcement officers also watched and documented the protesters' comings and goings at such places as the Iowa City Public Library; the New Pioneer Co-op natural foods store; the Red Avocado restaurant and the Deadwood Tavern; and the Wesley Center campus ministry of the United Methodist Church.

The FBI's nine-month investigation in 2008 is detailed in more than 300 pages of documents obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act by David Goodner, a former member of the University of Iowa's Antiwar Committee, and provided to The Des Moines Register.

The heavily redacted records indicate the FBI believed the Iowa City activists were part of a national network of radicals intent on disrupting the Republican convention in St. Paul, as well as the Democratic National Convention in Denver. The agency apparently learned of the Iowa City group, known as the Wild Rose Rebellion, by monitoring its Internet site. Names of most of the activists were deleted from the documents before they were released.

Goodner, 29, of Des Moines, who participated in the St. Paul protests and who is named in the documents, said the records show the federal investigation was a waste of time and taxpayer money.

"There's no evidence presented in hundreds of pages that anybody with either the University of Iowa Antiwar Committee or the Wild Rose collective had any plans for anything other than a nonviolent, if confrontational, direct action street protest at the 2008 Republican National Convention," Goodner said. Most of the Iowa City activists did not attend the Democratic convention in Denver.

About 25 members of Iowa City activist groups participated in the St. Paul demonstrations, but Iowa organizers said they were aware of only one Iowa City demonstrator who was arrested. Those charges were subsequently dropped.

Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York, cautioned that law enforcement faces a balancing act in monitoring political activist groups.

There is a legitimate need for law enforcement to be aware of groups that can potentially cause violence and disruption, said O'Donnell, an ex-prosecutor and former New York City police officer. But at the same time, some law enforcement agencies have had a history of overreaching in such investigations, gathering information on groups that had neither the capacity nor the intent to use violent means, he added.

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