By Stephen C. Webster
Monday, August 22nd, 2011
During the Bush-era, a great many Americans were swept up in the spying dragnet laid after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 by federal officials hoping to prevent another major terrorist attack — people like pacifist Christians, liberal activists, families with members overseas and even street-level falafel sellers.
Now Americans can add another group to the list of those who were viewed as a potential threat: the staff of Antiwar.com.
Documents produced by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by an obscure conspiracy blogger show that in 2004, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) assigned an analyst to dig into the website’s staff and financial contributors to determine whether they were “engaging in, or have engaged in, activities which constitute a threat to National Security on behalf of a foreign power.”
The investigation of Antiwar.com was launched after the site published a list of suspected terrorists (PDF) that the Bush administration had sent around to government agencies and major private sector employers, to help screen potential new workers.
The list contained the names and contact information for several men detained after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, often cited by conspiracy theorists as the “dancing Israelis.” Someone party to the investigation, who not named by the FBI, had apparently visited Antiwar.com in the past. According to a search of a hard drive seized by investigators, this person even wrote an essay about foreign aid from the U.S. to Israel, citing a report published by Antiwar.com.
After an investigation that included polygraphing the men multiple times and searching their place of business, the FBI concluded it had no evidence showing or even implying that the men had participated in or had foreknowledge of the attacks.
Despite this, the agency still sought a secret warrant through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to look into Antiwar.com. The FISA court is empowered to issue a special type of warrant that permits federal law enforcement to conduct more intrusive spying operations largely without oversight.
Apart from searches of public databases, the FBI’s analyst did not go into great detail and information produced was heavily redacted for reasons unknown. The results of searches for business records, phone records, credit information from Dun and Bradstreet, Antiwar.com’s Wikipedia page and even the collected knowledge of LexisNexis were mostly blanked out in the final report.
It is not clear what sort of threat information could be gleaned through such avenues of investigation. Other methods may have been used and simply redacted, as the memos bear numerous large, blank spaces.
The analyst also includes a string of Internet messaging board criticisms of Antiwar.com, and even references a discussion held by the Jewish Defense League chapter of New York — an organization the FBI has previously called a “right-wing terrorist group.”
The analyst also states clearly that the site’s publication of the suspected terrorist list “may not be significant by itself,” and added that free speech and sharing of information online should be “protected.”
The FBI’s assessment ends with a recommendation to “further monitor the postings on website http://www.antiwar.com.”
It is not clear if the FBI is still monitoring the site or its contributors. An FBI spokesperson refused to comment.