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FOIA Conference

ACLU Seeks Files on Government Surveillance of Peace Groups

In the wake of revelations of government surveillance of nonviolent protests, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington today filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on behalf of itself and 11 peace organizations across the state. The groups seek to obtain records of any surveillance of their activities by the FBI, the Department of Defense, and the Seattle Joint Terrorism Task Force.

All the organizations have been involved in peaceful protest of government policies. The action follows the recent disclosure of government files showing that the FBI and other federal agencies monitored nonviolent groups around the country, including peace groups in Washington during the 2003 Seafair festival.

“The government should not spy on groups engaging in peaceful political protest. The FBI should focus its efforts on actual threats and not target people because of their political views,” said ACLU-WA Executive Director Kathleen Taylor.

Seeking to learn the extent of surveillance on local political groups, the ACLU is filing Freedom of Information requests on behalf of itself and these groups:

  • American Friends Service Committee
  • Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane
  • People for Peace, Justice, and Healing
  • Pierce County Truth in Recruiting
  • Raging Grannies
  • Seattle Peace Chorus
  • Sound Nonviolent Opponents of War
  • United for Peace in Pierce County
  • Vancouver for Peace
  • Yakima Valley Peace Advocates Network
  • Western Washington Fellowship of Reconciliation

Some of these groups were named in documents created by federal agencies in 2003 in conjunction with Seattle’s annual Seafair festival. The materials released under a FOIA request filed by the ACLU on behalf of Glen Milner of Ground Zero, a Bangor-based nonviolent group that opposes the use of nuclear weapons.

The files show communications between the FBI and other agencies about Ground Zero, the Seattle Peace Chorus, Sound Nonviolent Opponents of War, and other groups. As revealed in the files, government agents visited collected information about Ground Zero’s plans to ride small boats in Elliott Bay to protest the Navy fleet, scheduled to dock in Elliott Bay during the summer Seafair festival. The government also gathered information about political meetings and e-mails sent to allies about the peace flotilla. The surveillance created permanent government records that could later be misinterpreted or misused.

The monitoring shows an inappropriate and wasteful government interest in groups that have no history of violence. An e-mail in the released files noted that the Raging Grannies, a group of elderly peace advocates who sing at events, had attended a potluck held by Snohomish County Peace Action of Edmonds. It noted that the Snohomish group’s website had links “from everything between and the Ground Zero Center for Non-Violent Action.”

“Our national security people should have better things to do than monitoring the Raging Grannies,” said Aaron Caplan, staff attorney for the ACLU-WA. “Domestic spying feeds the false notion that political dissent is automatically dangerous and somehow linked to criminal acts or terrorism. Expressing disagreement with the government is a central part of American freedom. It is not evidence of crime.”

The ACLU-WA requests for public records are part of a national effort to learn the extent of domestic surveillance of political groups under the “war on terror.” Documents obtained thus far have shown that the FBI and local police infiltrated political, environmental, anti-war, and faith-based groups. In Pennsylvania, files revealed that the FBI investigated gatherings of the Thomas Merton Center for Peace & Justice just because the organization opposed the war in Iraq. In Georgia, the FBI and local Homeland Security officials spied on vegans picketing against a meat store in DeKalb County. In Santa Cruz, Calif., college students protesting military recruiters on campus ended up as “credible threat” on a Pentagon surveillance program database.

The ACLU sent FOIA letters to these agencies:

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Department of the Air Force
  • Directorate for Freedom of Information and Security Review
  • Defense Intelligence Agency
  • Inspector General of Department of Defense
  • Department of the Army
  • Seattle Joint Terrorism Task Force
  • Department of the Navy

Click below for a Word template of a FOIA letter request, more information on the national ACLU initiative, and for media coverage of the announcement.