An FBI counterterrorism unit monitored -- and apparently infiltrated -- a peace group in Pittsburgh that opposed invading Iraq, according to agency documents released Tuesday.
The disclosure raised new questions about the extent to which federal authorities have been conducting surveillance operations against Americans since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Previous revelations include FBI monitoring of environmental and animal rights organizations, scrutiny of anti-war organizations by a top-secret Pentagon program and eavesdropping by the National Security Agency on domestic communications without court authorization.
In the wake of the newest revelations, the New York Civil Liberties Union is trying to find out whether the FBI or other police agencies are spying on three anti-war organizations in the Buffalo area.
The NYCLU filed freedom of information requests Tuesday on behalf of Buffalo Veterans for Peace, the Buffalo War Resisters League and the Western New York Peace Center.
Referring to the FBI monitoring in Pittsburgh, John A. Curr III, acting director of the NYCLU's Buffalo office, said:
"Such abuses of power are being committed in Buffalo."
Buffalo FBI spokesman Paul M. Moskal said the agency is not involved in any illegal spying activities in Western New York.
"I can't comment on any specific organizations, but the FBI does not investigate advocacy groups. We investigate allegations of illegal activities," Moskal said.
Federal officials insist that the efforts disclosed Tuesday are legal, although the Pentagon has admitted that the top-secret TALON program mistakenly retained in its database reports on scores of anti-war protests and individuals as part of an effort to identify terrorist threats against defense facilities and personnel.
The American Civil Liberties Union obtained the documents released Tuesday under the Freedom of Information Act. They showed that the Joint Terrorism Task Force of the FBI's Pittsburgh office conducted a secret investigation into the Thomas Merton Center beginning as early as Nov. 29, 2002, and continuing as late as last March.
William J. Crowley, a spokesman for the FBI's Pittsburgh office, said the monitoring was legal and related to an ongoing investigation. He didn't provide any details of the probe. He said that when the FBI found no link between its investigation and the center, it ended the surveillance.
The ACLU contended that the documents "show conclusively" that an anti-war group was targeted for "its anti-war views."
"These documents show that Americans are not safe from secret government surveillance, even when they are handing out fliers in the town square, an activity clearly protected by the Constitution," said Marty Catherine Roper, an ACLU staff attorney.
The center, founded in 1972, describes itself as a group of people from diverse faiths who believe in "nonviolent struggle" for peace and justice. Merton, an American Catholic monk, author and poet, died in 1968.
Four heavily edited documents -- one dated Nov. 5, 2004, another Feb. 28, 2005, and two dated March 23, 2005 -- appeared to be reports from an FBI informant who had infiltrated the group.
The documents all contained the phrase: "Source, who is not in a position to testify, provided the following information." They also say that the source observed and reported on the group. The information reported was blacked out.
"The documents say they were conducting some kind of investigation," Jim Kleissler, the Thomas Merton Center director, said in a telephone interview. "That implies we were under surveillance simply because we were against the war. Our freedoms are being undermined."
An FBI report dated Nov. 29, 2002, identified the center as "a left-wing organization advocating, among many political causes, pacifism."
"The TMC holds daily leaflet distribution activities in downtown Pittsburgh and is currently focused on its opposition to the potential war in Iraq," the report said. "According to these leaflets, Iraq does not possess weapons of mass destruction and that, if the United States invades Iraq, Saddam Hussein will unleash biochemical weapons upon American soldiers."
The report also noted that the center and an Islamic organization had staged an event to promote understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.
The Buffalo News staff contributed to this report.