"The FBI should use its resources to investigate credible threats to national security instead of spending time tracking Americans who criticize government policy, or monitoring groups that have not broken the law," said Ann Beeson, Associate Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
"Labeling law-abiding groups and their members 'domestic terrorists' is not only irresponsible, it has a chilling effect on the vibrant tradition of political dissent in this country".
The documents were released as part of a series of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits brought by the ACLU.
The ACLU accused the FBI of expanding the definition of "domestic terrorism" to include citizens and groups that participate in lawful protests or civil disobedience such as Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).
The FBI had previously turned over a small number of documents on antiwar groups.
After the 9/11 attacks, then Attorney General John Ashcroft loosened restrictions on the FBI's investigative powers, giving it greater ability to visit and monitor Web sites, mosques and other public entities in developing terrorism leads.
US President George W. Bush admitted on Saturday, December 17, that he had authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to carry out domestic spying without the necessary court warrants.
The heavily-edited documents indicate that the FBI has used employees, interns and other confidential informants to infiltrate groups like PETA and Greenpeace.
One document suggests that the FBI is using PETA's interns for surveillance, while others describe attempts to locate and interview "several former disgruntled PETA employees".
Similarly, one cryptic e-mail kept in a Greenpeace file describes a source who "offers a unique opportunity to gain intelligence on activists who show a clear predisposition to violate the law".
Jeff Kerr, General Counsel for PETA, blasted the FBI practice.
"These documents show the erosion of freedom of association and speech that Americans have taken for granted and which set us apart from oppressive countries".
He went on: "McCarthyist tactics used against PETA and other groups that speak out against cruelty to animals and exploitive corporate and government practices are un-American, unconstitutional and against the interests of a healthy democracy."
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