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FBI, police spying is rising, groups allege

The ACLU has filed Freedom of Information requests for more than 150 groups and individuals.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 23, 2006


Inside the Time's UP! office on Houston Street in Manhattan, pictures of people taking part in an environmental protest line an old refrigerator. In one, a man with short hair and a chiseled physique is talking on his cellphone. In another, a large man wields a video camera.

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The people at Time's UP!, an environmental activist group, suspect these men are not protesters at all, but rather plainclothes police officers. "We say these people are spying, and they're definitely being assisted by the police if they're not police themselves," says Bill DiPaola, director of Time's UP!

Is that concern paranoia? Or is it skepticism in this post-9/11 era of increased surveillance?

Political activists from New York to Colorado to California report that they believe police and FBI surveillance of their activities has increased markedly since the terror attacks 4-1/2 years ago since Congress approved the USA Patriot Act loosening some of the strictures on law enforcement. They include environmental groups like Time's UP!, peace activists in Pittsburgh, and even a police union protesting for higher wages in New York City.

To try to find out if law officers are spying on them, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed Freedom of Information requests for more than 150 groups and individuals in more than 20 states who believe their first amendment rights are being violated.

Time's UP! is one of the groups that says the alleged surveillance is aimed at intimidating them. They acknowledge public events can be watched by anyone but they're concerned police have crossed the line into inappropriate spying to discourage people's from publicly criticizing government policies.

Local police and the FBI insist that none of their activities is aimed at chilling political speech. All investigations are conducted under strict guidelines put in place after abuses were documented during the Civil Rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Before any investigation of a political group proceeds, law officers require reasonable suspicion or information that an individual or a group is involved in criminal or terrorist-related activities.

"Our only interest is in preventing, disrupting, and defeating terrorist-related operations or criminal activity - and that's through appropriate investigations that are conducted in accordance with attorney general guidelines," says Bill Carter, an FBI spokesman.

Throughout American history, and particularly during times of conflict, the balance between civil rights and national security has shifted toward the latter and later come under scrutiny. From World War II through the cold war to the sociopolitical upheaval of the 1960s, repeated civil rights violations occurred in the name of national security - from people being imprisoned and denied jobs for their political statements to the infiltration of political groups.

"We're nowhere near there now. Throughout the 20th century, we ... built better protections against intrusions on constitutional rights," says Alasdair Roberts, professor at the Maxwell School in Syracuse University in New York and author of "Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age. "Nevertheless we can't take these gains for granted, and we have to take these issues of surveillance seriously."

The FBI says peace and environmental activists are confusing legitimate investigation of potential terrorist or criminal activity with free-speech violations. Peace activists say law enforcement is misusing the fear of terrorism to impede legitimate speech.