03/14/2006 10:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Is the FBI Interested in My Neighborhood?

It's not so much the neighborhood as one of my neighbors -- literally around the corner from where I live is the storefront headquarters of the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice. Sounds threatening, huh? The FBI seems to have thought so, according to an ACLU press release that has at least attracted the attention of the Knight Ridder newshounds (still barely hanging together).

The center, founded in 1972, describes itself as a group of people from diverse faiths who believe in "nonviolent struggle" for peace and justice. Merton, an American Roman Catholic monk, author and poet, died in 1968.

An FBI report dated Nov. 29, 2002, identified the center as "a left-wing organization advocating, among many political causes, pacifism."'

My favorite part of the story:

An FBI agent photographed center members handing out leaflets, said the report, which added that "one female leaflet distributor, who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, inquired" if the picture-taker worked for the FBI.

(FWIW, Pittsburgh has had a large Lebanese-American population for about a century, so people "appearing to be of Middle Eastern descent" are not exactly unusual around here.)

Local coverage in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the American Civil Liberties Union and the Thomas Merton Center had filed a Freedom of Information Act request in May 2005 (available in five pdf links at the ACLU site). The FBI monitored and photographed such nefarious deeds as passing out anti-war leaflets in downtown Pittsburgh and "coordinating events" with the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. Interfaith activities, tut tut.

Usual disclosure: I'm on the board of the Pittsburgh chapter of the ACLU, and have been inside the Thomas Merton Center on occasion, though I'm not a member.

Update: Tomorrow's Washington Post catches up with the story.