WASHINGTON -- The American Civil Liberties Union accused the FBI of misusing terrorism investigators to monitor some domestic political organizations, despite apparently disparate views within the FBI whether some groups supported or committed violent acts.
Citing hundreds of pages of heavily censored documents they obtained from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act, lawyers for the ACLU described this disputed use of terrorism resources as the latest illustration of intensified surveillance aimed toward Americans.
''Using labels like domestic terrorists to describe peaceful protest activity can chill robust political debate in this country," ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner said in New York. The ACLU said it will publish the FBI reports it obtained on its website today.
In one case, government records show the FBI launched a terrorism investigation of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Norfolk, Va., despite acknowledgment by one FBI official that, ''The FBI does not consider PETA a terrorist organization."
The FBI responded that it conducts its investigations appropriately -- subject to US laws and Justice Department guidelines. It said the ACLU mischaracterized some passing references to political groups in FBI files to suggest those groups were under investigation; in other cases the FBI confirmed it was acting on tips tying groups to alleged illegal activities.
''You end up in FBI files with your name and your group's name because you're doing stuff," said John Miller, FBI assistant director of public affairs. ''By and large, the FBI has done a pretty good job sticking to those rules."
The FBI documents indicate the government launched its terrorism investigation of the animals ethics group because it was ''suspected of providing material support and resources to known domestic terrorism organizations," including the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front.
The animals' group investigation began in August 2003 and lasted at least 12 months, according to documents. Miller could not say whether the investigation was concluded.
The FBI reports also linked the animals group to the government's investigation of a bombing outside the Shaklee Cosmetic Corp. in Pleasanton, Calif., in September 2003. The FBI said Shaklee conducted animal testing of cosmetic products, and its parent company was a frequent target of campaigns by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and another group, Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty.
Separately, the FBI files said the Norfolk animals group protested a rodeo in Las Vegas in December 2003 with representatives from the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front.
Jeffrey S. Kerr, lawyer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, denied his organization provided support or resources to the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front, calling such claims ''tired old allegations." Kerr said any terrorism investigation was ''a scurrilous waste of resources."
''This is really an abuse of power," Kerr said. ''PETA and other groups are really being targeted because we are being social activists and engaging in free speech. This is un-American and unconstitutional and contrary to the interests of any definition of a healthy democracy."
The ACLU said the FBI documents also suggest that federal terrorism investigators infiltrated the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. One document, sent to an FBI counterterrorism unit in Los Angeles, describes a list of attendees from the group at a conference in Stanford, Calif., to protest sanctions against Iraq in May 2002.
Other FBI documents obtained by the ACLU describe efforts in May 2001 by Greenpeace and the Los Angeles-based Catholic Workers Group to disrupt missile tests in California.
The FBI said the Catholic Workers Group ''advocates a communist distribution of resources."