FBI Director Robert Mueller falsely claimed to Congress in 2006 that the bureau conducted surveillance of an anti-war rally in 2002 due to possible links to terrorism -- when in fact those ties were concocted as part of a clumsy attempt by one of the bureau's field offices to cover up its real reason for sending a rookie agent to the rally, according to a new report.
The probe by the FBI's inspector general was prompted by concern that the bureau was improperly targeting domestic advocacy groups, such as PETA and Greenpeace, based solely on their exercise of their First Amendment rights. At a Senate hearing in May 2006, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) questioned Mueller about the allegations, citing surveillance of the Thomas Merton Center, a nonprofit inspired by the example of the monk who dedicated his life to peace and social justice, and an anti-war rally in Pittsburgh promoted by the center in 2002.
Mueller responded by stating that the surveillance was related to an "ongoing investigation", explaining that an FBI agent took photographs of a participant at the rally "as a direct result of information provided to the FBI."
That information was "inaccurate and misleading," concluded the IG, adding that it does not believe Mueller was aware that his testimony was false.
As it turns out, Mueller's information was based on a clumsy attempt by the bureau's field office in Pittsburgh to cover up the fact that an agent was sent to the rally as a "make-work assignment" on a slow day, the IG discovered through extensive interviews. When the ACLU filed a request in 2005 for documents about the surveillance of the center, the FBI's Pittsburgh office undertook an elaborate "after-the-fact reconstruction," in which the division's legal staff later wrote a routing slip stating that the agent, Mark Berry, was sent to the rally to photograph individuals associated with the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh's Farooq Hussaini and another individual who was the subject of a pending investigation prompted by an "international terrorism investigation" by the FBI Dallas Field Division.
That "after-the fact reconstruction" was "not corroborated by any witnesses or contemporaneous documents," concluded the IG. No one in the Pittsburgh field office had conducted any searches in the FBI database for Hussaini before the 2002 rally but years later Crosetti and an FBI legal staffer "coordinated" research on Hussaini in the days before the routing slip was drafted.
That false information became the basis for a press response on the rally that was later issued by the FBI's National Press Office and for Mueller's testimony. Mueller told the IG that he could not recall who briefed him on the surveillance of the rally and the center. The IG concluded that it does not believe that Mueller "intentionally misled Congress" but rather that he "was poorly served by those responsible for the contents of the routing slip and press response." It adds that "we found no evidence indicating that Director Mueller was aware of the inaccuracy of the information that was provided to him and that was the basis for his testimony."
Calling it an "ill-conceived make-work assignment," the IG notes that Berry was sent to the rally on the spur of the moment because he was a probationary agent "with nothing to do on a slow work day - the day after Thanksgiving."
As an insight into Berry's thought process, this paragraph is particularly revealing:
Berry also told us that although he could not recall the faces of the subjects in the binder for whom he was supposed to be looking, he decided he would take a couple of photographs of a woman who was in attendance. He said he did so because he needed to show his supervisor that he was "earning his pay" and was doing what he was told. Berry said he did not know whether the woman he photographed was a terrorism subject. He said some of the terrorism subjects in Pittsburgh for whom he was supposed to be looking were female, but at the time he took the photographs he did not remember what the female subjects looked like. He told us that he had a conversation at the rally with a female leaflet distributor he perceived to be of Middle Eastern descent. Berry told us that the woman was probably the person he photographed, although he qualified this by saying that he did not remember her.
Even worse, the young agent was quickly exposed after attending the rally for just over 10 minutes. According to the division's report, the female leaflet distributor whom Berry apparently photographed "inquired whether the Special Agent was an FBI agent."
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