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A slow day at the FBI

September 23, 2010 | 12:47 pm

This week the inspector general of the Justice Department issued a report about FBI surveillance of several groups, including Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The report concluded that none of the groups was investigated by the FBI simply because of their opinions, but in some cases it found fault with the duration of investigations and the tenuous connection to suspected criminal or terrorist activity.

Inspector Gen. Glenn A. Fine has recommended, among other things, that the FBI specify the potential violation of a specific criminal statute to justify opening a preliminary or full investigation of advocacy groups for activities related to the exercise of their 1st Amendment rights. That’s a worthy if obvious conclusion. The question is whether the FBI culture can internalize a sensitivity to freedom of expression.

One case from my hometown doesn’t inspire confidence on that score. Here’s how he describes its genesis:

     “. . .in late November 2002, a probationary FBI agent in the Pittsburgh Field Division attended a public anti-war leafleting event sponsored by the [Thomas] Merton Center.. The agent told us that his supervisor sent him to the rally on a slow work day (the day after Thanksgiving) when he asked the supervisor for work and that the supervisor instructed him to go the rally to look for Pittsburgh Field Division international terrorism suspects. We found no evidence that the assignment was made pursuant to a particular investigation or in response to any information suggesting that any particular terrorism suspect might be present at the rally.”

It’s not encouraging that the first thing that occurs to an FBI agent on a “slow work day” is to go snooping at a political rally.

 --Michael McGough

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