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September 20, 2010

FBI monitored peace groups and provided false information, report finds

The FBI monitored the Thomas Merton Center, Catholic Worker Movement, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other domestic groups, a new report by the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General discloses.

FBI officials may have also falsified documents in order to justify surveillance of a peace protest, the investigators suggest. FBI press statements concerning its surveillance "contained important information that was false," the investigators say.

The detailed, 209-page report covered FBI activities between January 2001 and December 2006. The investigation followed on congressional concerns raised about whether special agents were infringing on protected First Amendment rights.

The report is replete with details and insight about the FBI's world. It's one in which bureaucracy and supervisor-pleasing matters a great deal.

In one case, for instance, FBI Special Agent Mark Berry was reported to have photographed a 2006 peace rally organized by the Pittsburgh-based Thomas Merton Center. This was previously known. What the Inspector General's investigation revealed was the bureaucratic backstory.

Berry, at the time, was a probationary special agent, working with the Joint Terrorism Task Force. He only had one case to work. He explained to investigators that "when work was slow, he would ask his supervisor for a work assignment." So it was, that this ambitious young agent was told by his supervisor to check out this anti-war event and "to see what they are doing."

Berry said he decided to take pictures of the rally "to show (his) supervisor that he was earning  his pay." In other words, it was FBI CYA. But then the story gets far more complicated, as Berry and his supervisor spar over what was really going on and who was responsible for a 'routing slip' that accompanied surveillance documents. The OIG investigators conclude while Berry's appearance at the rally was an "ill-conceived make-work assignment," and that:

"person or persons intentionally drafted a version of events in the routing slip that provided a stronger justification for the surveillance of the Merton Center anti-war rally than was in fact the case."

The report is worth checking out in its entirety, for anyone interested in the national security bureaucracy as well as the relationship between law enforcement and domestic dissent.


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"Suits & Sentences" is a legal affairs blog written by Michael Doyle, a reporter for McClatchy's Washington Bureau. He was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Yale Law School, where he earned a Master of Studies in Law; he also earned a Masters in Government from The Johns Hopkins University with a thesis on the Freedom of Information Act. He teaches journalism as an adjunct instructor at The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

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