The American Civil Liberties Union (search) is seeking information from the FBI (search) on why bureau task forces set up to combat terrorism also looked into anti-war, animal rights and environmental groups.
Dozens of organizations have been subjected to scrutiny, according to the ACLU, which was filing Freedom of Information Act (search) requests with the FBI on Thursday to try to find out why.
"We think it's clear that the public is interested in the possible return of FBI spying on political and religious groups," said Ann Beeson, the ACLU's associate legal counsel.
The FBI denies singling out individuals or groups for surveillance or investigation based solely on activities protected by the Constitution's guarantees of free speech.
Officials say agents adhere strictly to Justice Department guidelines requiring evidence of criminal activity or indications that a person may know something about a crime.
"Any investigation conducted by the FBI is done under the attorney general's guidelines and in full compliance with the guidelines," FBI spokesman Bill Carter said.
There are terrorism task forces in 100 cities and with more than 3,700 members, including at least 2,000 FBI agents, state and local police, and other federal law enforcement officials. More than half of the task forces were formed after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The ACLU was seeking FBI files on a broad range of individuals and groups that have been interviewed, investigated or subjected to searches by the task forces. The requests also seek information on how the task forces are funded, to determine if they are rewarded with government money by labeling high numbers of cases as related to terrorism, Beeson said.
"What we're afraid is happening is that these cities and towns can get federal anti-terrorism money by identifying local groups as threats in their areas," Beeson said.
The ACLU provided a list of examples, including the Quaker-affiliated American Friends Service Committee (search) that had been monitored by Denver police and was listed as an "active case" by a local terrorism task force.
Others who contend they were improperly monitored or investigated include Rocky Mountain Animal Defense (search), the Washington-based Campaign for Labor Rights (search) and a number of peace and environmental activists.
The information requests were being filed with FBI headquarters in Washington as well as field offices in Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon, New York, Virginia and Massachusetts, Beeson said. ACLU affiliates in California and New Jersey have previously filed lawsuits seeking similar information.
If the FBI declines to turn over the information, the ACLU can sue in federal court.