MCLU worries FBI is watching peace groups

Big chill
By SARA DONNELLY  |  November 1, 2006

The Maine Civil Liberties Union is fighting on two fronts to protect Mainers’ privacy against the government's efforts to intrude.

Last week, the group's executive director, Shenna Bellows, announced that the FBI has on file copies of e-mails sent by organizers of Peace Action Maine and Maine Veterans for Peace, telling members about anti-war demonstrations at Bath Iron Works in July 2005 and the Brunswick Naval Air Station in September 2005. A few days later, the MCLU opposed a request to move to California a case involving an investigation of wiretapping in Maine by the National Security Agency.

In the first instance, the FBI released copies of a half-dozen e-mails in files about Maine Veterans for Peace and Peace Action Maine, in response to a Freedom of Information request the MCLU made last year.

“What we have seen post-September 11 is that national security is being used as an excuse to target peace protestors,” says Bellows, referring to recent reports that the Pentagon has tracked peace groups like the Quaker group the American Friends Service Committee, and the January release of information from an FBI file on the Maine Coalition for Peace and Justice.

The e-mails, which are posted on MCLU’s Web site, all appear to be mass mailings announcing the time and location of the demonstrations and calling for participants. Identifying information about who received the e-mails has been blocked by the FBI, and Bellows and Jack Bussell, the member of Maine Veterans for Peace who sent most of the messages, say they are not sure if an FBI agent signed up for the e-mail list, if the e-mails were forwarded to the FBI from a civilian member on the list, or if the FBI has some other way to monitor the groups’ e-mail.

Nenette Day, a spokeswoman for the FBI in the Boston office, says a National Archives and Records Administration rule requires the agency to retain information whether or not an actual investigation is occurring.

“We don’t have the luxury of just tossing information if it’s provided,” says Day, who would not comment about how the FBI received the e-mails or whether a file is currently open on the groups. “To assume that because we have information we’re investigating you is absolutely incorrect. A few e-mails does not an FBI investigation make.”

The MCLU and the peace groups say they have little recourse to dig any deeper into possible surveillance since the FBI, if it has in fact assigned an agent to monitor the groups, is within its legal rights after rules changes following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

In a separate privacy matter, on October 27 the MCLU formally opposed moving the United States v. Adams case to California. In the case, the federal Department of Justice has sued to prevent the Maine Public Utilities Commission from investigating whether Verizon cooperated with the NSA’s nationwide program monitoring Americans' phone records. Maine’s case and 25 other similar cases around the country would move to San Francisco if the order is upheld. Bellows says the Maine case is different from all the others, and adds that arguing the lawsuit cross-country would “impose a high cost on Mainers who just want to know if their privacy rights were violated.”
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