WASHINGTON - An FBI counterterrorism unit monitored - and apparently infiltrated - a peace group in Pittsburgh that opposed the invasion of Iraq, according to internal agency documents released on Tuesday.
The disclosure raised new questions about the extent to which federal authorities have been conducting surveillance operations against Americans since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Previous revelations include FBI monitoring of environmental and animal rights organizations, scrutiny of anti-war organizations by a top-secret Pentagon program and eavesdropping by the National Security Agency on domestic communications without court authorization.
The [Thomas Merton Center] holds daily leaflet distribution activities in downtown Pittsburgh and is currently focused on its opposition to the potential war in Iraq...According to these leaflets, Iraq does not possess weapons of mass destruction and that, if the United States invades Iraq, Saddam Hussein will unleash bio-chemical weapons upon American soldiers.
Federal officials insist that the efforts are legal, although the Pentagon has admitted that the top-secret TALON program mistakenly retained in its database reports on scores of anti-war protests and individuals as part of an effort to identify terrorist threats against defense facilities and personnel.
The documents released on Tuesday were obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act. They showed that the Joint Terrorism Task Force of the FBI's Pittsburgh office conducted a secret investigation into the activities of the Thomas Merton Center beginning as early as Nov. 29, 2002, and continuing as late as March 2005.
William J. Crowley, a spokesman for the FBI's Pittsburgh office, said that the monitoring of the center was legal and related to an ongoing investigation. He didn't provide any details of the probe. He said that when the FBI found no link between its investigation and the center, it ended the surveillance.
The ACLU contended that the documents are the first to "show conclusively" that an anti-war group was targeted for "its anti-war views."
"These documents show that Americans are not safe from secret government surveillance, even when they are handing out fliers in the town square, an activity clearly protected by the Constitution," said Marty Catherine Roper, an ACLU staff attorney.
The center, founded in 1972, describes itself as a group of people from diverse faiths who believe in "nonviolent struggle" for peace and justice. Merton, an American Roman Catholic monk, author and poet, died in 1968.
An FBI report dated Nov. 29, 2002, identified the center as "a left-wing organization advocating, among many political causes, pacifism."'
"The TMC holds daily leaflet distribution activities in downtown Pittsburgh and is currently focused on its opposition to the potential war in Iraq," said the report. "According to these leaflets, Iraq does not possess weapons of mass destruction and that, if the United States invades Iraq, Saddam Hussein will unleash bio-chemical weapons upon American soldiers."
The report also noted that the center had cooperated with an Islamic organization in staging an event to promote understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims in Pittsburgh.
An FBI agent photographed center members handing out leaflets, said the report, which added that "one female leaflet distributor, who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, inquired" if the picture-taker worked for the FBI.
A Feb. 26, 2003, FBI report titled "International Terrorism Matters" detailed a schedule that the center posted on its Web site of anti-war rallies in Pittsburgh, New York and elsewhere.
Four heavily redacted documents - one dated Nov. 5, 2004, another Feb. 28, 2005, and two dated March 23, 2005 - appeared to be reports from an FBI informant who had infiltrated the group.
The documents all contained the phrase: "Source, who is not in a position to testify, provided the following information." They also say that the source observed and reported on the group. The information reported was blacked out.
"The documents say they were conducting some kind of investigation," Jim Kleissler, the Thomas Merton Center director, said in a telephone interview. "That implies we were under surveillance simply because we were against the war. Our freedoms are being undermined."
The FBI agent who photographed the pamphlet distribution "was acting with all appropriate investigative authorities" and destroyed the pictures when it was determined that they were of no value to the probe, Crowley said in a statement. The Feb. 26, 2003, report was a draft document and was never made part of an official file, he said.
© 2006 KR Washington Bureau and wire service sources