This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  March 24, 2006

FBI monitored Merton Center, files show


The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania released FBI documents March 14 that the civil rights group says show that the bureau’s Joint Terrorism Task Force has been spying on the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice in Pittsburgh.

The documents were obtained from the FBI under the federal Freedom of Information Act and show that the FBI monitored activities of the center from Nov. 29, 2002, up to at least March 2005.

The ACLU news release stated: “The documents come to the ACLU as a result of a national campaign to expose domestic spying by the FBI and other government agencies.” The ACLU requested documents on the Merton Center in May 2005 and received them 10 months later. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU has made requests in 20 states on behalf of more than 150 organizations and individuals.

In response to these requests, the government has released documents that show monitoring and infiltration by the FBI and local law enforcement, targeting political, environmental, antiwar and faith-based groups, the ACLU said.

In an FBI memo of Nov. 29, 2002, the agency describes the Merton Center as “a left-wing organization advocating, among many political causes, pacifism.” It goes on to report the contents of antiwar leaflets being handed out in downtown Pittsburgh by the Merton Center and indicates that an FBI special agent photographed those distributing them.

An FBI memo noted: “One female leaflet distributor who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent” inquired if the picture-taker worked for the FBI. “No other Thomas Merton participants appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent,” the memo said.

The center has long suspected that its activities were being watched, executive director Jim Kleissler told NCR in a telephone interview. A number of Muslims and people of Middle Eastern background have been active in the organization.

The FBI documents report that the center cooperated with an Islamic organization to host an event to enhance understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims in the city.

Further FBI documents -- with many lines blacked out -- refer to the center’s sponsorship of a Feb. 15, 2003, march to protest the impending Iraq war. The event drew some 5,000 participants. Anniversary marches in March 2004 and 2005 have rallied some 2,000 to 3,000 Pittsburgh antiwar protesters.

Kleissler said that the FBI’s characterization of the center as being opposed to the U.S. war with Iraq “makes us sound insidious.”

The FBI documents contain references to a “source who is not in a position to testify.” Whether this source was an informant who infiltrated the group posing as a volunteer may never be known for certain, Kleissler said. “We are not going to point any fingers. The FBI is well known for tactics designed to create suspicion and division in progressive groups” as its history with civil rights and antiwar organizations demonstrates, he said.

He noted that some documents were withheld from the ACLU, “as these were protected in the interest of national security or foreign policy.”

The revelation has made Kleissler “a little sad and a little nervous,” but determined to continue the center’s nonviolent activities to oppose the war. “If anything, we’re more motivated. We have to work harder to protect our liberties. Being spied on isn’t freedom,” he said.

An FBI spokesman denied that the center had been spied upon or that the FBI had done anything illegal. Special Agent William J. Crowley said the bureau was never investigating the Merton Center. “It was an investigation of an individual, not a group,” Crowley told NCR.

When the FBI found no link between its investigation of the suspected individual and the center, it ended its surveillance, Crowley said. He confirmed that an agent had taken photos at a leafleting action sponsored by the Merton Center. “The photos proved to have had no value and were destroyed,” Crowley said.

The agent, who serves as spokesman for the Pittsburgh office of the FBI, said that members of the center should have no fear that their phones were tapped or that their e-mail was being monitored, as some center staffers and volunteers suspect.

“What frustrates us is the whole tone of what is being said,” Crowley said. However, he said he did not think the news garnered much interest. “The New York Times didn’t cover it; The Washington Post had only a small story and you’re only the second reporter to call me about it today” -- the day after the ACLU revelation, he told NCR.

Asked whether the FBI would be on hand March 18 when a center-sponsored march was to mark the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Crowley said, “Most of our agents want to be with their family on the weekend. We don’t have the manpower or personnel to be looking at groups.” But, he added, “If there’s a legitimate investigation going on and we have reason to be there, we will be.”

Long time peace and justice activist Molly Rush of Pittsburgh noted that the Freedom of Information Act was passed to help prevent past excesses by the FBI. She recalled the FBI releasing documents about center activities in the 1970s. “They were mostly blacked out, but for a newspaper photo of members planting a peace tree downtown,” she said.

Rush questioned how much of the FBI’s resources have “been wasted on fishing expeditions that have little or nothing to do with investigating terrorism and which actually divert attention from that mission.” Rush, a veteran of the Plowshares peace movement, said she believed spying on nonviolent activists and groups “is not only unconstitutional, but exceedingly useless and foolish.”

On March 29 the center will host a “File your own Freedom of Information Act Party,” during which time individuals will be helped to fill out requests to determine if they are under FBI surveillance.

Patricia Lefevere is a longtime contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: