FBI investigates peace protest

The Pittsburgh-based Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice (TMC) has long been part of the movement for finding solutions in the War on Terror. Now subject to repeated FBI investigations, the group is encountering more problems resulting from the war effort than solutions.

The FBI has been investigating the group because of its political opposition to warfare and reports of a person of “investigative interest,” according to FBI special agent Jeff Killeen and a document released by the TMC on March 14.

Two documents released by the FBI on March 14 confirmed for the first time that the FBI is targeting the TMC specifically because the group opposes the war in Iraq, according to a press release by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

FBI presence as a result of both the release of these documents and surveillance at the group’s anti-war protest on March 18 outraged the TMC.

On March 21, the left-wing activist group staged a “spy-in” at the federal building in downtown Pittsburgh. A crowd of approximately 30 people donned spy gear and stood outside the government building to “protest government spying and intimidation,” according to the Thomas Merton Center’s
Anti-War Committee website.

“We want to publicize the fact that our government is spying on peace activists, and we want to let the public know that this is their tax dollars at work,” said Mary B. O’Malley, a spy-in participant.

“Something is seriously wrong in how our government determines who and what constitutes terrorism when peace activists find themselves targeted,” stated the ACLU in the press release.

Activists have been infuriated by repeated FBI surveillance that they believe is “completely unwarranted,” according to Dave Meieran of the Thomas Merton Center.

“It’s just ridiculous,” said Colby Tarnauskas, a senior biology major and intern for the TMC. “Why would you waste taxpayers’ money spying on us?”

According to Killeen, TMC meetings and sponsored events, which the FBI has been monitoring since 2002, have been targeted not because of the Thomas Merton Center itself, but because of a person “of investigative interest” who may have been present at those events.

“The FBI cannot investigate any person without predication. There has to be a connection between that activity and that person,” Killeen said. “If [the TMC] is out there doing peace activist work, fine. But if there’s someone there who is suspected of a crime, we have to watch them.”

Activists feel their First Amendment rights are being infringed upon, which prevents them from protecting their civil liberties.

“Do we threaten the current administration’s erosion of civil liberties by exercising our democratic rights?” asked Tom Vining, a target of FBI spying and author of an additional ACLU press statement also released on March 14. “I would hope so. Taking action to defend human and civil rights is a time-honored tradition in this country.”

The FBI also feels they are protecting human and civil rights.

“We have to be careful to protect everyone’s civil liberties,” Killeen said. “We do everything to make sure that we don’t encroach on anyone’s constitutional rights. Our paramount concern is to make sure that lives and property are protected.”

One concern of the TMC was that its members of Middle Eastern descent were being particularly targeted.

“During a time when religious differences often lead to so much violence and war, we feel it is more important than ever to build relationships and solidarity across lines of religion,” Vining stated.

Though an FBI document dated November 29, 2002 mentioned specifically that a TMC event was held at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, gave the home telephone number of the Muslim contact person for the event, and stated that “there are more than a few Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent” present, Killeen maintained the FBI does not target specific racial groups.

“[The FBI] cannot and will not investigate because of someone’s religious or ethnic background,” he said.

Protesters are also concerned that the FBI activity has been allowed to occur legally because of the October 2001 adoption of the Patriot Act.

“It takes away more of our privacy each time it’s extended,” Tarnauskas said. “Without the Patriot Act, this FBI activity would be illegal.”

Killeen pointed out that the Patriot Act was enacted to open channels between government agencies for information sharing and collaboration after 9/11. “Many extremely important and helpful tools to help us gain information about possible terrorism have been made possible by the Patriot Act,” he said.

The FBI documents, dating back to 2002, were released because of Freedom of Information Act requests by the TMC and the ACLU. Under any other circumstances, the FBI would not have released those documents, Killeen said. Under that act, a group may request any documents on record which mention their organization in any way.

The TMC also suspects that an informant actually affiliated with the FBI is posing as a member of the center, according to a March 14 letter from the TMC to friends and members of the organization. Killeen said he could not comment on this matter.

“This spying is obviously a reaction to the good, hard work of Pittsburghers working against the war,” stated the March 14 letter released by the TMC.

“This is only the beginning of our efforts to shut down spying programs that target Americans and foreign nationals because of their political beliefs.”