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Officials step up monitoring of anti-war groups

Sacramento Bee

The first hint that their group had been infiltrated came when they saw the dead man's picture in the newspaper.

The story about his demise in a motorcycle accident said his name was Aaron Kilner and that he had been a detective with the Fresno County (California) Sheriff's Department.

But members of Peace Fresno, an anti-war group formed soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, had known the nice young man as Aaron Stokes, "the guy with the short hair and the goatee who sat in the corner," as one member described him.

"He participated in demonstrations, he took fliers with him that he said he was going to distribute, and when he was asked about his occupation he said he had some kind of trust fund or inheritance that made it possible for him to not work," said Catherine Campbell, an attorney for the peace group that now is debating whether to sue the Sheriff's Department for invasion of privacy.

Fresno County Sheriff Richard Pierce has had little to say about the incident, other than declaring that Peace Fresno is not under investigation by his department and that his detectives operate within the law.

But peace activists and law enforcement officials agree that the monitoring of anti-war groups and other activists has stepped up since the terrorist attacks of two years ago.

Attorney General John Ashcroft recently issued new guidelines on anti-terrorism investigations that critics contend will give the FBI more leeway in spying on anti-war groups and others.

Justice Department officials say the guidelines, by strengthening the FBI's ability to look for evidence of possible terrorist planning, help law enforcement protect Americans.

But the move comes on the heels of several incidents in the past year that have made civil libertarians wary of renewed government spying.

Earlier this year, as Kilner was gaining the trust of Peace Fresno members, undercover agents from the California Highway Patrol were attending training sessions by a protest group planning demonstrations at the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology in Sacramento.

Even after two of them were discovered by activists and asked to leave, others remained, keeping tabs secretly - and legally - on what was going on.

Last spring, anti-war protestors planning a demonstration in Oakland saw their rally broken up with rubber bullets after a state counterterrorism unit issued a secret bulletin to law enforcement warning of the potential for violence.

And a prosecutor in Albuquerque, N.M., was fired after she attended an anti-war rally there and was accused of pointing out a number of undercover police monitoring the event.

"I did no such thing," said Jennifer Albright, who is pursuing legal action over her firing and who said police infiltration of peace groups is common practice in Albuquerque.

Law enforcement spying on such groups once was commonplace, especially during the Vietnam War era. But legal experts say the practice slowed amid concerns that law enforcement was violating the free speech rights of activists.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, however, police agencies have made it clear they have no qualms about conducting investigations using cameras, plainclothes detectives and other methods. They emphasize that such probes are conducted within the constraints of the law, which allows them to covertly observe an array of public meetings and activities, but allows formal investigations to be opened only when there is suspicion of criminal activity.

Much of the increase in surveillance stems from the fact that over the past couple of years the nation has waged war overseas - in Afghanistan and Iraq - for the first time since Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The military actions spawned anti-war demonstrations nationwide, and law enforcement makes no apologies for keeping a close eye on such events.

Some agencies say they keep tabs on activists only when they are protesting and might disrupt traffic or business in public places.

"We wouldn't put an undercover person with a group simply because they had a different opinion from others," said Sgt. Justin Risley, spokesman for the Sacramento Police Department.

But, Risley added, groups that describe themselves as "peace activists" sometimes end up in illegal skirmishes.

The federal guidelines Ashcroft released give the FBI the ability to look into possible terrorism plots without opening a formal investigation.

The guidelines, released by the Justice Department but heavily redacted in portions that remain classified, allow "the proactive collection of information concerning threats to the national security, including information on individuals, groups, and organizations of possible investigative interest. ... "

What that means, Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said, is that the FBI "can do more research."

"It emphasizes early intervention," Corallo said in a telephone interview. "This is guidance to the field offices that allows them to be more proactive."

Under the new rules, FBI offices can use public information to assess potential threats from groups or individuals and can share the information with local law enforcement, he said.

But, Corallo emphasized, the rules do not allow the FBI to launch formal probes without probable cause that criminal activity is being planned.

The American Civil Liberties Union disputes that. In a statement, the ACLU contends that the rules are "apparently designed to allow detailed monitoring of both citizens and non-citizens without any indication of ongoing or intended espionage."

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