Glenn Fine–DOJ’s Inspector General–is usually one of the most credible agents of oversight in the federal government. But his last report–examining whether the FBI investigated the First Amendment activities of lefty groups as terrorism–is a masterpiece of obfuscation. It manages to look at three different investigative efforts of the Thomas Merton Center’s anti-war activism, all treated as terrorism, and declare them unconnected and therefore not evidence that during the Bush Administration anti-war activism was investigated as terrorism.
The coverage of the report has largely focused on Robert Mueller’s reportedly unintentional lies to Congress explaining why an anti-war event sponsored by Pittsburgh’s Thomas Merton Center was investigated in the guise of international terrorism. For good examples, see Charlie Savage and Jeff Stein’s versions of the story.
The short version of Meuller’s misinformation to Congress the report offers is that 1) a rookie FBI officer was sent out as make-work to improperly surveil a peace protest, 2) after that became clear through FOIA, his boss and a lawyer in the office and the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division tried to retroactively invent reasons for the surveillance, 3) largely through the bureaucratic game of telephone that resulted, Robert Mueller (and in more significant ways, a response to a Patrick Leahy Question For the Record) provided false information to Congress.
One cornerstone to this rather credulous narrative is the way the IG Report treats the surveillance of Pittsburgh’s Thomas Merton Center. Rather than treat all the surveillance of the center together–which would reveal an obvious pattern and much better reason to lie to Congress–the report treats several different iterations of surveillance separately. As a result, Fine was able to look at at least six reports treating Merton Center anti-war activism as terrorism (and ignore one more FBI investigative effort) and declare each of them acceptable.
The Chronology of FBI’s Thomas Merton Center Surveillance
Let’s start with the timeline (note all the names, except that of Farooq Hussaini, are pseudonyms chosen by DOJ IG, as reflected by the quotation marks) which shows fairly sustained surveillance of the Center over the course of three years:
November 29, 2002: Supervisory Special Agent “Susan Crosetti” sends rookie FBI officer “Mark Berry” to surveil people associated with the Thomas Merton Center distributing leaflets opposing the Iraq War. Berry takes photos of some participants. The report recording the surveillance is placed in the “international terrorism” file.
January 2003: Secret Service agent visits Merton Center to discuss upcoming protest in Pittsburgh.
February 26, 2003: Pittsburgh office produces Letterhead Memorandum, titled “International Terrorism Matters,” describing a vigil the Merton Center was planning for when the Iraq War started, as well as local events that had taken place on February 15, 2003 in association with the NY-based United for Peace and Justice sponsored protest.
April 4, 2003: FBI produces EC on Pittsburgh organizational meeting at the Merton Center in advance of Miami FTAA.
July 8, 2003: FBI EC describes threats that FTAA protesters would use puppets to attack riot police and Molotov cocktails.
July 10, 2003: First document recording ties between Person B (alleged to have pro-Palestinian feelings) and the Merton Center (note, this document must have been withheld from the FOIA).
July 21, 2003: Miami Field Office opens domestic terrorism investigation in relation to the FTAA protests.
July 25, 2003: Miami Field Office sends EC to Pittsburgh Field Office on August 29-31 planning meeting for FTAA including Merton Center.
July 26, 2003: FBI designates FTAA a Special Event worthy of heightened surveillance.
August 29-31, 2003: FBI conducts research on FTAA planning meeting at Merton Center in Pittsburgh.
October 29 (?), 2004: First report from confidential source mentioning the Merton Center (all these reports were faxed on July 8, 2005 and declassified on January 4, 2006). The source was apparently the friend of an agent’s son, and included reporting on planning for an anti-war march the Merton Center was planning. The source was purportedly recruited for an investigation into several alleged members of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group; that investigation was a terrorism investigation.
February 25, 2005: Second report from confidential source on the Merton Center.
March 1, 2005: Third report from confidential source on the Merton Center.
March 19, 2005: Fourth report from confidential source on the Merton Center.
Unknown date (before May 18, 2005): FBI agent visits Merton Center intern at intern’s residence asking for information about Merton Center activities.
May 18, 2005: ACLU PA FOIAs FBI documents referencing the Thomas Merton Center (among others).
Unknown date, 2006: Pittsburgh’s Chief Division Counsel reviews the source reporting (and two earlier anti-war reports) and tells agent to close the source.
January 23, 2006: “Carl Fritsch,” a member of Pittsburgh FBI’s legal staff, and Crosetti, both search FBI databases on Farooq Hussaini’s name.
February 1, 2006: National ACLU files FOIA.
February 8, 2006: FBI Field Division Attorney “Stanley Kempler” sends Record Management Division a routing slip, written by “Carl Fritsch,” indicating that the November 29, 2002 surveillance had been directed at Farooq Hussaini and alleging that Hussaini was associated with “Person B” who was the subject of a different investigation. This routing slip was–in the IG Report’s judgment–the first attempt to invent a cover story for the November 2002 surveillance. The same slip provided background on the February 26, 2003 and urged RMD not to release it.
March 14, 2006: ACLU releases FOIA documents, focusing on November 29, 2002 report; FBI issues a press release see PDF 205) inventing a public rationale for the surveillance and purporting to address the February 26, 2003 report.
March 22, 2006: FBI Director’s Research Group writes document “ACLU Allegations of Spying.”
May 2, 2006: Patrick Leahy asks Robert Mueller why FBI was surveilling anti-war demonstrators.
“Soon after” hearing: Leahy asks several Questions For the Record, including for any “earlier investigative memos” that served as the basis for the November 2002 surveillance.
May 16, 2006: Counterterrorism Division’s Executive Staff tasks “Clarence Parkman,” from their Iraq Unit, to draft a response to Leahy. Minutes earlier, Parkman had done a database search on Thomas Merton Center. Two analytical employees in the Iraq section emailed Kempler (cc’ing Berry) for more information. Kempler forwarded the request to Crosetti.
June 5, 2006: Iraq Unit of Counterterrorism Division provides 3-paragraph response to Leahy’s question about November 2002 anti-war rally newly claiming that Person B was the subject of the surveillance. The response also claims–contrary to the description in the original EC but corresponding to story Berry first told to IG–that Berry took pictures of just one, female, protester.
The IG presents this series of surveillance actions directed at the Merton Center as discrete events. It attempts to find an explanation for each incident of surveillance in isolation, and as such, is able to describe each as legally permissible, leaving only the attempt to retroactively invent an explanation for the November 2002 surveillance as really problematic.
But examining the other reports makes it clear that there was a pattern of investigating the Merton Center’s anti-war activities under the guise of terrorism.