Punished for Pacifism

[Editor's Note: This is an edited transcript of a segment of Democracy Now!, which aired on Wednesday, March 15.]

Amy Goodman: Newly released files show the FBI has been monitoring and possibly infiltrating a Pittsburgh peace group because of its opposition to the war in Iraq.

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union released a series of once secret FBI files that show the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force conducted a secret investigation into the activities of the Thomas Merton Center beginning as early as November 2002, and continuing up until at least last March.

According to the ACLU these documents are the first to show conclusively that the rationale for FBI targeting is the group's opposition to the war.

One memo describes the Merton Center as a "left-wing organization advocating, among many political causes, pacifism." It notes that the center hands out leaflets on a daily basis opposing the war in Iraq.

The FBI files also notes that one of the peace activists monitored handling out fliers "appeared to be of Middle Easter descent."

Another file on the peace center is titled "International Terrorism Matters" and it includes information on a series of anti-war rallies taking place in Pittsburgh and around the country.

The documents raise new questions about the extent of the government's domestic surveillance operations. On Monday Democratic Senator Russell Feingold introduced a resolution to censure President Bush for illegally ordering the National Security Agency to conduct warrantless domestic surveillance.

The White House has insisted the NSA surveillance is targeted solely at members of Al Qaeda and affiliates. But civil liberties groups fears that the government is also spying on political activists and critics of the government.

In December, NBC News revealed the existence of a secret Pentagon database to track intelligence gathered inside the United States including information on anti-war protests and rallies particularly actions targeting military recruiting.

Here in New York, the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed Freedom of Information requests on Tuesday on behalf of itself and fourteen of New York's most prominent political and religious groups to determine whether the FBI is spying on them as well.

In a minute we will be joined by Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. But first we go to Pittsburgh to speak with Tim Vining, the former head of the Thomas Merton Center. He is personally named in the FBI spy files on the group. Can you talk about what you understand these files say, exactly?

Tim Vining: Well, the activity that we were cited for was simply leafleting in Market Square. We went out -- it was Buy Nothing Day, the day after Thanksgiving on November of 2002 -- and we went out just simply to hand out leaflets about a variety of issues -- transit advocacy, antiwar, global justice -- and for that, we were targeted. Also, what's really distressing to me, Amy, is that the Thomas Merton Center has worked very hard to build relationships with members of the local Muslim community, especially after 9/11, as they were targeted and scapegoated. And because of that, because we tried to build relationships that cross the lines of religion that are used to divide people, because of that, we were spied on by our government. Now, at a time when religious misunderstandings and differences lead to so much terrorism and violence in the world today, you would think our government would applaud us for seeking peace and trying to understand one another. Instead, they spied on us.

AG: Tim Vining, who was Thomas Merton?

TV: Thomas Merton was a monk, a Trappist monk who spoke out during the Vietnam War in favor of peace, and he was a man who was extremely consistent. He thought that if we had the value of peace and we were truly peacekeepers and peacemakers, that we had to put our money where our mouth is. So he dedicated his life and his writing, from the monastery, speaking for peace.

AG: So, what are your plans? And do you know, for example, who they were referring to when they say that someone was handing out fliers who was of Mid-Eastern decent.

TV: Well, one thing we're not going to allow the F.B.I. to do is to have us spy on one another and not trust one another. You know, so we're not even trying to guess. The fact is the person they identified simply, quote, "looked Middle Eastern." There was no evidence that any of us, that person or any of us, were advocating any sort of violence. So I'm not quite sure. I know we have many members of the Thomas Merton Center who are Muslim, and we're proud to have them as members and to stand with them.

AG: Have you been able to identify people who work with the F.B.I. who are coming to your meetings?

TV: Yeah. We know, of course, that we're constantly having photographs taken of us. We've always suspected people at our meetings and at our large events. You know, this government has a history of spying on its citizens. We're not naive. But I think what's important is that we not allow this to get us to not trust one another or to live in fear and paranoia. You know, for years, since the Thomas Merton Center was formed in 1972, we have always stood with people who have been targeted or have been scapegoated, whether that be African Americans, gays and lesbians, immigrants, workers, youth, and we're not about to stop now. And if that makes us a threat to this government, then so be it. But we're not going be deterred. In fact, this Saturday, we're going back out into the streets of Pittsburgh, and we're going to have another huge protest in the thousands to defend our rights and to speak out against this war.

AG: We're talking to Tim Vining, former executive director of the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh; in our studio, Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Donna, can you talk about the Freedom of Information Act request you have filed?

Donna Lieberman: Yes, the New York Civil Liberties Union has filed requests on behalf of a wide range of peace, civil rights, immigrant groups, as well as the New York Civil Liberties Union itself, to ascertain what kind of domestic surveillance is going on of us. We've filed these requests on behalf of groups that are committed to advocacy through lawful means, who haven't got a hint of illegal activity about them. And the purpose of the request is to find out what's going on and to publicize that, so that the American people can hold our government accountable for this reign of spying on what's really as American as apple pie: political protest and dissent. And we're hopeful that we'll get information, and that with this information, we will be able to not just unearth what's going on, but to build a movement to just put an end to this ridiculous policy by our government that doesn't bother to or can't or doesn't want to differentiate between lawful political protest and terrorism.

AG: And this issue of infiltration, Tim Vining, it's one thing for an F.B.I. agent to come to a meeting, the question of if they are actively participating, if they are taking notes, have you ever asked people to identify themselves at a meeting, and has anyone ever done that?

TV: Yes, but of course, if someone is with the F.B.I., they're not going to identify themselves. They have the right to lie, and they will lie. So we know that, you know, they've been at our meetings and they're taking notes. And sometimes we get asked this, Amy, like the NBC reporter was asking, "Well, you know, it's a public event, what's the big deal where you're just being watched?" What's different is this is our government, undisclosed agents of our government. The group that has the power to arrest us, to detain us, and God knows what else, if we think of Guantanamo Bay, and so then we're concerned with this, that an undisclosed agent of our government with actually the power to execute in this country would be observing us. And so, that puts a chill throughout the activist community. So we need to really stand strong, stand together, and say we're not going to give in to fear, to paranoia, and we're going to go out there and, you know, exercise our rights.

AG: Are you also on Pentagon lists?

TV: Well, there was a Pentagon report, a list, and, yes, we're on that list. I'm sure we're on a whole bunch of lists that we're not even aware of. But the Pentagon list that came out -- I think it's MSNBC had released it -- identified some counter-recruitment. And here, they're targeting our youth. They're targeting -- a lot of the strength of the Thomas Merton Center has been the youth, and they're targeting them, because of their counter-recruitment activities.

AG: Donna Lieberman, this issue of infiltration and the legality of it?

DL: Well, there's a case pending in New York, the Handschu case, which has been pending for twenty years. And it started after the - well, it was resolved temporarily after the revelation that the New York City Police Department had infiltrated the Panther 21, and the highly publicized, highly touted trial of 21 members of the Panther Party back in the 1980s for allegedly plotting to blow up department stores, turned out to be a total hype, entire harassment -- entrapment by the F.B.I., where it was revealed that F.B.I. agents had infiltrated the Panthers and the people behind any ideas of a plot to blow up anything were all government agents.

When government agents infiltrate lawful political organizations, they're under pressure to come back with information, and what government hearings have revealed time and time again is that they come back initially with no information, with information about lawful activities, and then they're under pressure to generate some business. And they try to entrap people into and foment illegal activity. They often fail, because these are organizations that are committed to peaceful protest, not terrorism. So, we're deeply concerned that when government infiltrates organization, they end up trying to destroy those organizations and get them to do things that they wouldn't otherwise do. Do we have any doubt that if Martin Luther King were alive today, that he would be bugged by the Bush administration? Not a doubt in our minds. Not the slightest doubt. And I think that the American people have to understand that the American Friends Service Committee, the Council of Peoples Organizations, the 9/11Families for Peaceful Tomorrows are all under the government's microscope because they dare to criticize this administration.

AG: The 9/11 Families are those who lost loved ones on 9/11.

DL: Yes, these are people who lost family members in those terrible attacks.

AG: Donna Lieberman, last question, we just broadcast from Britain all last week, and a man who is there now, a prominent professor, Muslim professor, Tariq Ramadan, is not allowed to come into this country. You are filing a suit on his behalf? Is it a suit?

DL: We filed a suit. It's a suit. Today, we're filing a motion for preliminary injunction against the government to stop the exclusion of Tariq Ramadan from this country. He's being excluded from this country. He's the most prominent European scholar on Islam, and he was supposed to be teaching at Notre Dame. Instead, he's teaching at Oxford, a revolutionary hotbed of terrorism, as I understand, according to the government, and he's being excluded pursuant to a provision in government manuals that prohibits people or allows them to exclude people who engage in irresponsible expressions of opinion. In other words, our immigration policy, our policy on foreign visas for scholars is that we don't want any critics or the government can bar any critics of the Bush administration. That's not what a democracy, the voice of the free world is or ought to be about.

AG: And what would a preliminary injunction mean?

DL: It would prohibit the government from continuing to exclude him based on his politics, not based on any illegal activity.

AG: Well, I want to thank you for being with us. We will continue to follow the case and encourage people to go to our website at DemocracyNow.org to hear our conversation with Tariq Ramadan. Donna Lieberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Tim Vining the former head of the Thomas Merton Center, joining us from Pittsburgh. The Merton Center has turned up in F.B.I. documents. The F.B.I. is surveilling that peace group.

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