Protesters Subjected To 'Pretext Interviews'
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 18, 2005; A04
New FBI documents to be released today show that anti-terrorism agents who questioned antiwar protesters last summer in Denver were conducting "pretext interviews" that did not lead to any information about criminal activity.
The memos were obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union as part of ongoing litigation and provide a glimpse of the FBI's controversial efforts to interview dozens of members of leftist protest groups before the party conventions last year in Boston and New York.
FBI officials and then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said at the time that the interviews were based on indications that radical protesters may be planning violent disruptions. Authorities said one specific threat involved plans to blow up a media van in Boston.
But the new memos provide no indication of specific threat information. Instead, one heavily censored memo from the FBI's Denver field office, dated Aug. 2, 2004, characterized the effort as "pretext interviews to gain general information concerning possible criminal activity at the upcoming political conventions and presidential election."
Another memo from December 2004 indicated that Sarah Bardwell, one of the Denver activists singled out for interviews, was targeted because she had helped organize an antiwar protest and was a member of a group called Food Not Bombs, which the memo characterized as having a "close association" with a radical anarchist group.
ACLU officials said yesterday that the documents show that investigators from the FBI and the local Joint Terrorism Task Force were on a fishing expedition.
"These documents confirm that the FBI's anti-terrorism force has been collecting information about peaceful protesters and dissenters and targeting people for attention on the basis of constitutionally protected association and advocacy," said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU's Colorado chapter. "It lends credence to what a lot of critics have said: that the FBI is starting to regard some forms of dissent as potential terrorism."
FBI officials said the interviews stemmed from specific threat information, but they declined to provide details.
"The interviews reflected in these isolated documents were based on a specific and credible threat received by the FBI regarding potential violent criminal activity that could have caused death or serious bodily injury and was to occur during the Democratic National Convention," the bureau said in a statement. "It is the FBI's top priority to prevent any act of terrorism, which requires special agents of the FBI to thoroughly investigate every credible threat received."
Bardwell, 21, who helped organize antiwar protests on behalf of a local chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, said she had no plans to attend either of the political conventions and was troubled by the FBI's attempt to interview her and her friends. None of the activists consented to the interviews.
"It's very clear to me that the purpose of those interviews was to intimidate activists in the Denver area from exercising their First Amendment rights," she said.