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Peace group under FBI surveillance

LINDA COOPER and JAMES HODGE / NCR | August 8 2006

School of the Americas Watch, a faith-based peace organization that seeks to close a U.S. military school that has advocated the use of torture and assassination, finds itself under surveillance by the FBI’s counterterrorism unit.

Fr. Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest who founded the organization, recently told members of the U.N. Human Rights Committee in Geneva that the spying has been going on for years.

And he has the documents to prove it.

With help from the American Civil Liberties Union, Bourgeois obtained FBI records showing it has been targeting his organization, which monitors the U.S. military school for Latin American officers, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The group organizes an annual November protest against the school in Fort Benning, Ga.

What is chilling, Bourgeois said, is that the surveillance continues despite the fact the FBI’s own documents conclude that SOA Watch is a peaceful group.

An Oct. 14, 2003, field report advises FBI headquarters that SOA Watch leaders “have taken strides to impart upon the protest participants that the protest should be a peaceful event.” A Dec. 29, 2003, document says, “Overall the crowd was peaceful in their actions and the SOA Watch leaders appear to foster that type of environment.” A Nov. 30, 2004, document states, “This year’s protest was peaceful as it has been for the most part over the past 15 years.”

Despite these assessments, said Gerry Weber, the ACLU’s legal director in Georgia, the FBI surveillance of SOA Watch, once classified as “routine,” somehow became “priority,” subjecting the group to monitoring by the counterterrorism division.

The FBI denies it monitors political activity. But Weber said the bureau has “made no allegations of wrongdoing” against SOA Watch activists, aside from civil disobedience, leading one to conclude that the FBI is “identifying groups opposed to the administration’s policies as potential threats.”

“It’s become clear to me,” Bourgeois said, “that any person or organization critical of U.S. foreign policy becomes the enemy, is seen as subversive, as a possible terrorist.”

SOA Watch is often characterized as a grass-roots movement with a large faith-based constituency, including the support of hundreds of priests, nuns and lay Catholics, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and the Presbyterian General Assembly.

Bourgeois told U.N. committee members that it was “a scandal” that the U.S. government was squandering “time, money and resources” infiltrating and spying on a peace group, rather than investigating the military school, its use of torture manuals and “the heinous crimes of its graduates, who have caused so much suffering and death in Latin America.”

The ACLU hosted the panel of Americans in Geneva, which also included women, minorities and immigrants allegedly victimized by the government. The U.N. committee is reviewing U.S. compliance with a major international human rights treaty.

The redacted FBI documents, which can be found on the ACLU’s Web site at www.aclu.org/spyfiles, have the names of FBI personnel blacked out, as well as those of informants and SOA Watch demonstrators.

The documents note the news coverage that the activists receive, as well as the annual growth of the demonstrations, which drew an estimated 19,000 last year.

The Dec. 29, 2003, memo registers the effect that stiffer fines and prison terms have had on the group, saying the immediate jailing of trespassers “has had a chilling effect on those deciding whether to participate in an overt act of civil disobedience.”

Weber said the ACLU sees no indication the surveillance will stop anytime soon, as it’s difficult to challenge it in court.

Bourgeois said he wouldn’t be surprised if the spying increased, given the recent successes of the movement. In March, after he led delegations to meet with Uruguayan defense minister Azucena Berrutti and Argentine defense minister Nilda Garré, both governments announced they were severing their long ties to the school.

Their decisions came two years after Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez made the same announcement six weeks after meeting with Bourgeois’ delegation. The priest has also appealed to Bolivian President Evo Morales, who is expected to make a similar announcement.

On the domestic front, SOA Watch and its network helped Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern get legislation cutting the school’s funding to the House floor.

The June 9 showdown was the first time in six years that the issue was brought to a vote. While the measure failed by a 218-188 margin, school critics were encouraged that the issue had garnered 29 Republican supporters and that only 16 more votes are needed to pass the measure.

The developments on Capitol Hill and in South America have fueled the movement, Bourgeois said, making it less vulnerable to FBI intimidation.

The spying, he said, is an abuse of power and “a clear attempt to stifle political opposition, to instill fear. But we aren’t going away.”

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