FBI expects violent protests in New York
But says it lacks evidence to move against any group
WASHINGTON -- The FBI anticipates violent protests at the upcoming Republican National Convention in New York but does not have enough evidence to move against any group or person, the bureau's top terrorism official said yesterday.
New York officials have said they expect hundreds of thousands of people to stage demonstrations around the convention, which begins Aug. 30.
Concern about the convention comes amid heightened security across New York over fears that foreign terrorists might strike the city again. New York is on a "high" terrorism alert level, while most of the country is on elevated alert.
Federal investigators have infiltrated some organizations and are monitoring plans for protests being published on the Internet. The FBI also interviewed some protesters around the country before last month's Democratic convention in Boston and in anticipation of the GOP convention.
"We don't have any specific plot where we have all the variables we need to go out and take pre-emptive and judicial action," said Gary Bald, assistant director of the FBI counterterrorism division.
The FBI has noted that some activist websites critical of Republicans and the convention include links to a site that lists Molotov cocktails, slingshots, and bolt cutters as appropriate "offensive weapons" to carry during protests.
Three Democratic legislators on the House Judiciary Committee have criticized the FBI's interviews of protesters around the country. They asked the Justice Department's inspector general to investigate what they called "possible violations of First Amendment free speech and assembly rights."
The committee's ranking Democrat, Michigan's John Conyers, along with Representatives Robert C. "Bobby" Scott of Virginia and Jerrold Nadler of New York, said in a letter that the FBI seems "to be engaged in systematic political harassment and intimidation of legitimate antiwar protesters."
Bald, speaking with about 20 reporters at the bureau's headquarters, said FBI agents have interviewed only protesters they thought were plotting to firebomb media vehicles at the conventions or might have known about such plots. All the investigations are being treated as terrorism cases, Bald said.
"I've got more than enough to keep my people busy than to worry about if a protester is pro or con on some issue," Bald said. He called it "critically important that citizens have the ability to exercise their First Amendment rights."
Bald added, "We don't monitor rallies; we don't monitor people at rallies." But the FBI will open an investigation if it learns from tips, informants, or other methods that protesters are planning to commit violent acts, Bald said.
The warning of a possible attack against media trucks, disclosed days before the Democratic convention, was based on assertions by an informant who described an alleged plot by self-described anarchists in the Midwest to throw Molotov cocktails at television vans, a senior US law enforcement official said.
Mark Silverstein, the Colorado legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was "very skeptical of the FBI's claim." The ACLU, which was contacted by some of the protesters who were interviewed by the FBI, said agents never asked directly about such an alleged plot.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.