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FBI Spying on Peace Groups Chills Free Speech

From the radio newsmagazine
Between The Lines
Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Dec. 8, 2003

Critics Charge that FBI Spying on Peace Groups Chills Free Speech

- Interview with Barbara Olshansky, attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights conducted by Scott Harris

Listen in RealAudio:

When the Bush administration made public its plan to invade and overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein in the summer of 2002, peace activists across America began organizing opposition to the coming war. Using the Internet and alternative media to spread the word, hundreds of new local and national anti-war groups were formed and in just a few short months came together by the hundreds of thousands to demonstrate against the march to war.

The corporate media initially marginalized their coverage of the antiwar protests until the numbers of people in the streets were just too big to ignore. But the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it appears, maintained a keen interest in these groups from the beginning. A recently leaked confidential FBI memorandum details how government agents have collected information on the tactics, training and structure of legal peace organizations and enlisted local police departments to become their eyes in ears in monitoring these groups.

Recent press reports, citing the FBI memo, have confirmed what activists and civil liberties advocates have long suspected about government surveillance of constitutionally protected political activities. In an echo of the many documented abuses of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, the Bureau justifies their actions by declaring that spying on the president's political opponents is simply part of the government's post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism measures. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Barbara Olshansky, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, who takes a critical look at the FBI's surveillance of dissidents and the chilling effect it has on free speech.

Barbara Olshansky: Several weeks ago, the FBI came out saying that they had collected extensive information on the tactics, training and organization of anti-war demonstrators. That was the first that we had known that they were actually doing this, you know, out of their own mouths.

But even prior to that when we heard first about the "no-fly lists" -- which some folks might be familiar with -- that also gave us hints that this was going on because that was clearly also aimed at antiwar protesters. People from peace movements from all across the country were being targeted and stopped at airports and either prevented entirely from flying or had their identification seized and were told that they needed to be evaluated before they were going to be permitted to go on their way to these (organizational) meetings. And it was very clear then that it was aimed at antiwar protesters.

So, all of this has sort of been in the offing. And then what happens -- we hear about in fact that there is a policy on the books that 's actually targeting people that are engaged in lawful protest and dissent. And so what we have watched sort of unfold really was just then put out more specifically for public consumption. It's really something that we were watching for and we sort of hate to jump to those conspiratorial conclusions -- and then, of course, it gets confirmed for us by the federal government.

Between The Lines: What do you think the FBI is looking for, given that by and large these demonstrations have been peaceful with hardly any incidence of violence that I can recall reading about, or any non-violent civil disobedience, very little of that as well, which is certainly in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi?

Barbara Olshansky: Right. In fact, for all the different major anti-war demonstrations there has been no violence at all. One of the things we first thought is, well, the USA Patriot Act has a very broad definition of what constitutes terrorism, and we thought, well, that definition includes violent acts that are intended to influence a policy of a government by intimidation or coercion -- that's the language.

We thought maybe they're going to try and paint all of the civil rights groups as "terrorist" groups by saying they're undertaking these violent acts. Except, you're right, they've been very, very peaceful. So it was clear that they really couldn't use the Patriot Act as a hook. And instead what's happened is the FBI has advised local law enforcement officials basically to keep tabs on who is attending these different meetings, what groups are attending and what their views are -- and to start taking interviews.

In New York (City) this manifested itself several months ago with arrests of protesters, not for civil disobedience -- but I guess there was no police activity that said, "You need to disperse," and so they just arrested people. They started interrogating them about their political beliefs. We pretty quickly put a stop to that. But that was clearly part of what the FBI is advising local law enforcement officials to do -- which is basically look at who is participating, which groups, which individuals are leading the participation, what activities they're undertaking -- and basically to try and identify people that they think are extremist elements.

That really harkens back to those old days where anyone that is protesting what the government is doing, is suspect. And all of these people are doing exactly what is sort of the hallmark of democracy, voicing their opinion about what our government is doing.

And while we're supposedly trying to sow the seeds of democracy in the Middle East, we're undermining (it) right here on our own soil. It's just an amazing admission by the government that this is going on.

Between The Lines: What is the Center for Constitutional Rights and other groups like the American Civil Liberties Union intending to do on citizens' behalf about the abuse and potential abuse of these surveillance powers the FBI has taken onto themselves -- spying on legal organizations?

Barbara Olshansky: Well, one of the things that we're doing with other groups like the ACLU and others, is challenging these policies in court. We're also encouraging people to email, call, fax, write and just generally scream at the people that they put into office to let them know this isn't OK.

There's lots of groups that are writing petitions, that are lobbying people in Congress to let them know. There are Bill of Rights Defense Committees that are started in each city across the country. People should really feel free to go to their city council, their town council, their county and state legislatures to get these resolutions passed so that it's clear that from the ground up Americans don't agree with these policies.

Really, what this means is that they've taken advantage of our not having such a big political role in our lives any more in this country, because things seem to operate on their own. Now it is incumbent upon all of us to take it back. We need to make it known to everyone that we talk to, from the people on our town and city councils to the people we elect to Congress, that this can't be done in our name; this is not what we want, this is not where we want this country to go and we're not going to let it happen. I think that's what people have to do.

I tell people if if you're going to the supermarket, when you pick up a melon and you ask your neighbor, "Is this ripe?" you should say, "… and do you know what John Ashcroft is doing to this country, let me tell you." Because that's the level at which we have to start organizing.

Contact the Center for Constitutional Rights at (212) 614-6464 or visit the group's website at

Related links on our website at for Week Ending Dec. 12, 2003:

-"Ashcroft's relaxed FBI guidelines allow targeting of antiwar protesters"
- "The FBI seems ready to take us back to the days of Cointelpro
-"F.B.I. Scrutinizes Antiwar Rallies"
-"Mission Creep Hits Home"


Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on over 35 radio stations. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines (, for the week ending Dec. 12, 2003. Between The Lines Q&A is compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.

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