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FBI Surveillance of Progressive Activist Groups

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Aug. 2, 2005

FBI Surveillance of Progressive Activist Groups Will Chill Free Speech, Critics Charge

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

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Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the FBI has monitored the activities of U.S. civil liberties, antiwar and environmental organizations. A lawsuit brought by activist groups charging that the FBI has targeted critics of the Bush administration forced the Justice Department to reveal that the FBI has amassed more than 3,500 pages of documents on progressive American advocacy organizations.

Thus far, the FBI has identified 1,173 pages related to the American Civil Liberties Union and 2,383 pages detailing surveillance of the environmental group Greenpeace. Other documents provide evidence of the bureau's monitoring of peace groups such as the national anti-Iraq war coalition United for Peace and Justice that had organized a series of large protests at last August's Republican National Convention in New York City.

The FBI denies that its investigation of groups critical of President Bush are designed to quell free speech, but rather to prevent disruptive or criminal behavior. However, representatives of the groups targeted charge that the FBI's monitoring of their legal and constitutionally protected activities amounts to an abuse of power. 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 what she believes is the resulting chilling effect on free speech.

BARBARA OLSHANSKY: This is a very interesting and I think relatively new event in the United States, where straight first amendment groups that are really on free speech rights grounds and anchored in the Constitution are being targeted for infiltration and surveillance on the notion that all of these groups are, or could become terrorist organizations given the tactics that certain groups use. In other words, the government has started thinking that everyone that opposes its policies in any way is likely to become a sort of bomb-throwing anarchist. And that is how the Justice Department and other people from the administration are talking about these straight-forward free speech groups that have long records of being in the public discourse here in the United States.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What can you tell us about how the FBI has collected these documents? Are they surveilling them through electronics? Are they infiltrating the organization's membership or leadership? Do we know anything about what's happening?

BARBARA OLSHANSKY: It's very hard to say how these things are collected. The government has actually stated openly, the anti-terrorism task force has stated this as well as the FBI, that they are now regularly infiltrating organizations because they feel like the only way to truly know what's going on is if they have somebody inside.

And so this is clearly one way they are doing this, but there is a whole host of other ways that they're doing it. And lest people think that it's only through the "sneak and peak" warrants, or roving wiretaps under the USA Patriot Act, there's a lot of other means that are available to the government to collect this information. And it's coming from a wide range of sources, some of which the United States is regularly now purchasing from commercial entities -- from commercial organizations. They'll find out about what your membership is in a particular organization. Then they'll be able to collect that data, collect it on surveys and all different means. Then they aggregate data from public sources. Then they're also of course issuing all kinds of requests for information from all kinds of organizations. Very frequently, we now know, that they don't actually invoke the provision of any particular law, they make an informal request and occasionally organizations have voluntarily provided this information.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Barbara, the groups targeted by the FBI certainly believe they are under political surveillance for their activities. But the FBI has said they're not monitoring the political activities of activist groups -- and that any intelligence-gathering activities related to political protests are intended to prevent disruptive or criminal activity at demonstrations, not to quell free speech. How do you assess that statement by the FBI?

BARBARA OLSHANSKY: Well, you know it's ridiculous because -- of course -- there's all these underlining assumptions, which is that all of these groups are groups which have a predisposition toward violence and destructive activities, which is not true. And that every group that engages in any free speech activity is going to have that same proclivity, that same tendency to do violence.

To think that the presence and surveillance by all these law enforcement organizations is not going to have a chilling effect, has just been proven wrong by history. And so, it just doesn't really make and sense from what we know about how the first amendment has operated in this country and how attempts to circumscribe free speech has affected people.

When we know that they're listening to what we're saying and that they're looking at what we're reading, at some point people start to internalize that notion and second guess themselves. "Do I want to take this book out (to) learn about Osama bin Laden, because someone might get hold of that record?" And then you say, "No, I don't really need to read it anyway."

And of course, we also internalize all of that stuff whether it's at a conscious level or more deeply buried. It's something that we know happens, and that's been proven to happen. So it's just not honest to say that these surveillance activities don't have a chilling effect on what people are going to say and do.

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

Related links:

* American Civil Liberties Union,


Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Aug. 5, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.



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