The FBI improperly opened and extended investigations of some U.S. activist groups and put members of an environmental advocacy organization on a terrorist watch list, even though they were planning nonviolent civil disobedience, the Justice Department said Monday.
A report by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine absolved the FBI of the most serious allegation against it: that agents targeted domestic groups based on their exercise of First Amendment rights. Civil liberties groups and congressional Democrats had suggested that the FBI employed such tactics during the George W. Bush administration, which triggered Fine’s review.
But the report cited what it called other “troubling” FBI practices in its monitoring of domestic groups in the years between the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and 2006. In some cases, Fine said, agents began investigations of people affiliated with activist groups for “factually weak” reasons.
And though the IG’s report said “in most cases, documents in FBI files referencing advocacy groups did not focus on the content of their First Amendment expressions,” the IG also said it “found instances in which the FBI used questionable investigative techniques and improperly collected and retained First Amendment information in FBI files.”
One important comment from the Inspector General’s office involved the placement on watchlists of people that the FBI was investigating — sometimes with “factually weak” bases for investigating the individuals or groups:
However, in some cases, we found that the FBI extended the duration of investigations involving advocacy groups or their members without sufficient basis. This had practical impacts on subjects, whose names were maintained on watchlists as a result and whose travels and interactions with law enforcement were tracked. For example, the FBI continued to collect information about the international travel of two subjects of a PETA-related investigation after the point that the underlying justification for the case ceased to exist.