NBC 5: ACLU Accuses FBI, Police of Spying on Peaceful Groups
Quaker, Muslim Groups Demand Information On FBI Activities CHICAGO -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois believes the FBI and local police, working as members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, are encouraging rampant spying, NBC5's Mary Ann Ahern reported.
ACLU legal director Harvey Grossman said the groups filed Freedom of Information Act requests on Thursday with the FBI to find out why the surveillance by task forces set up to combat terrorism also targeted anti-war and Islamic groups. The civil liberties organization wants to know who has been interviewed, investigated or subjected to searches by the task forces, and how the task forces are funded.
The filing by the ACLU and local activists group mirrors similar actions taken in several cities across the nation on Thursday.
"The FBI's response to these requests in Chicago and across the nation will provide an outline of how widespread the practice of conducting surveillance on peaceful religious and political organizations has been over the past few years," Grossman said.
Several of the groups involved in the allegations consist of Islamic Americans, who claim their personal freedoms are being infringed upon.
"This is an issue of our government intruding and violating these sacred Constitutional rights that we have of freedom of speech and freedom of association," said Yaser Tabbara, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The FBI is denying it has singled out individuals or groups for surveillance or investigation based solely on activities protected by the Constitution. FBI spokesman Bill Carter said agents are adhering to Justice Department guidelines requiring evidence of criminal activity or indications that a person may know something about a crime.
Michael McConnell, regional director of the American Friends Service Committee, said since the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., spying on political and religious meetings has increased.
"We know war, and we oppose it vociferously and unequivocally. If that is now a crime within the United States, God help us all," McConnell said.
He claims undercover Chicago police, working with a terrorism task force, infiltrated protest groups in 2002 because of fears they'd disrupt a meeting of the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue, a group of international business leaders. The officers attended rallies and fund-raisers of the American Friends Service Committee and four other anti-war groups.
McConnell said his organization wants to know if the FBI is keeping "spy files" on the group's activities, and if the spying continues.
"Do Americans really want to return to a time when anyone critical of government police was subjected to this sort of intrusive surveillance?" he said.
Chicago Police spokesman David Bayless said Thursday the department was doing what is allowed under the law, which is to investigate groups that could threaten the safety of the general public. "Our legal activity was merely to ascertain if there was a threat to the public," he said, adding that he is not sure if that determination was made of the Quaker group. "We are trying to determine if that information was turned over to the federal government."
The American Friends Service Committee has been the target of government spying since the 1950s, when an FBI file identified a leader as a "communist sympathizer," according to McConnell. The group, founded in 1917 to help conscientious objectors to World War I, was one of several that won a court order in 1982 barring the Chicago Police "Red Squad" from spying on groups that were conducting legal protests.
The federal court lifted the ban in 2001, saying it hampered law enforcement efforts to protect the public.
Attorney Zubair Khan of the Muslim Bar Association said Muslims are being targeted for surveillance by law enforcement, and it is putting a chill on the practice of their Islamic faith. "It simply is inadequate to target persons on the basis of their political viewpoints or their religious affiliation," Kahn said.
Grossman said the ACLU has asked the FBI to expedite the release of the information, adding that if the agency does not respond within the amount of time required by law, the organization will file a federal lawsuit.
"Give up the files to tell us what it is that you're doing, to give us some indication of how you are operating, and where we can get some breath of freedom to engage in what we believe the Constitution ensures for everyone," Grossman said.
Similar Freedom of Information Act requests were filed in nine other states and the District of Columbia.
copyright © 2004, NBC5.com