Justice criticizes FBI over probes of Merton Center
The Justice Department harshly criticized the Pittsburgh office of the FBI for providing misinformation, misleading testimony and false reports in connection with surveillance conducted at a 2002 anti-war rally sponsored by the Thomas Merton Center.
The 209-page report from the Inspector General's office was prompted by a 2006 congressional inquiry into whether the FBI was improperly spying on domestic groups and activities protected by the First Amendment.
Although the report concluded that the FBI was not improperly spying on anti-war protest groups, it noted that the Pittsburgh office had "no legitimate purpose for the FBI to attend the event."
The decision to attend the Nov. 29, 2002, rally in Pittsburgh was simply designed as an "ill-conceived 'make-work' " assignment for a new agent.
Instead of admitting the original reasons for sending an agent to the rally, officials within the FBI's Pittsburgh office tried to reconstruct evidence after the fact for a better justification for the assignment so as to avoid embarrassment, concluded Inspector General Glenn Fine.
The Merton Center was one of five groups and an individual named in the report by the Inspector General. Among other groups named in the report were People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Greenpeace. It included events occurring from January 2001 to December 2006.
But the report concluded that the Merton Center investigation raised "the most troubling issues in this review," and suggested that the FBI review the case to determine if any action is warranted against any of the "individuals involved in the creation of the inaccurate justifications for the FBI's surveillance of the Merton anti-war rally."
Chris Allen, a spokesman for the FBI in Washington, D.C., said the inspection division has not yet made any determination if that will occur.
Special Agent Bill Crowley, a spokesman for the Pittsburgh division, said his office would have no comment.
He did refer to a letter sent to Mr. Fine by FBI Deputy Director Timothy P. Murphy on Sept. 14.
Mr. Murphy noted in that letter that "the FBI regrets that incorrect information was provided regarding this matter."
Michael Drohan, board president at the Thomas Merton Center, said the fact that more than one-quarter of the inspector general's report is dedicated to his organization is "extraordinary and unbelievable."
"The Merton Center is an organization devoted to the pursuit of peace and justice with an absolute strict commitment to non-violence," Mr. Drohan said. "To mention us in the same sentence as 'terrorism' is an outrage. Everything we do and have done is to stop war, prevent war and promote economic and social justice.
"They really owe the Merton Center a profound apology for incriminating us."
The question of spying on the Merton Center event first came to public attention in March 2006, months after the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information request with the FBI.
In response to the request, ACLU officials received documents showing that an FBI agent, who was not identified in the report, attended the 2002 rally in Market Square and took photographs there.
According to the IG's report, the agent was sent to the rally to identify subjects involved in international terrorism investigations.
However, the agent realized when he arrived at the event that he was not prepared to recognize any possible suspects, noting that he was still on probation. He took photographs, he told the IG's office, "because he believed he needed to show his supervisor that he was 'earning his pay,' and doing what he was told," the report said.
When investigators from the Inspector General's office showed him the report he made of the event back in 2002, he described it as "atrocious on many levels," called it "a horrible mistake."
It wasn't until early 2006, when officials with the Pittsburgh FBI office were responding to the ACLU's Freedom of Information request, that the issue of the Merton Center resurfaced.
An attorney with the FBI's Pittsburgh division created what is called a "routing slip," associated with the request, in which he claimed that the reason an agent attended the rally was to investigate a particular individual.
The Inspector General's report released Monday identified that individual as Farooq Hussaini, the director of interfaith relations for the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. Mr. Hussaini died in 2008.
In a subsequent report filed by the Pittsburgh FBI office, the investigation was not focused on Mr. Hussaini, but on an unnamed person associated with him.
The IG's report concluded that the routing slip was "an after-the-fact reconstruction that was not corroborated by any witnesses or contemporaneous documents."
"Tying the person to a particular person of interest or terrorism suspect would be a better justification than what actually happened, which was that [the agent] was sent to the rally as a 'make-work' assignment to see if any of the Pittsburgh terrorism subjects happened to show up without having any reason to think any of them would be there," the report said. "Although we concluded that this assignment did not violate the attorney general guidelines, it did not reflect well on the Pittsburgh Field Division and could likely cause significant concern or embarrassment to the FBI if the true facts surrounding the surveillance were publicly presented," the report said.
It was because of the misleading routing slip -- and subsequent FBI press statements -- that FBI Director Robert Mueller presented false testimony to Congress in May 2006, the inspector general found.
While the report concludes that the director did not intentionally mislead Congress, "it is clear that FBI personnel took insufficient care to ensure that Director Mueller was given accurate information," the report concluded.
Witold Walczak, the legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, called the report "a welcome spotlight on unwelcome FBI activity."
"J. Edgar Hoover would have been proud of what the FBI did, but most Americans today should be frightened," he said. "In years past it was anti-war activists; today the spying could be on tea partiers."
The report noted that after the field office's chief division counsel saw the documents released as part of the Freedom of Information request, he went to Pittsburgh and conducted a series of training sessions with field agents on investigative activities and the First Amendment.
First Published September 21, 2010 12:00 am