Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union accused the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force on Thursday of collecting e-mails and license- plate numbers from peaceful activists labeled as terrorists.
The ACLU disclosed documents that it says show the terrorism task force is spying on people who are politically active in environmental, political and animal-rights issues.
In one instance, Colorado Springs police collected license-plate numbers of those at a peaceful protest against the timber industry and sent them to a Denver police detective on the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the ACLU said.
In another, the ACLU said, task- force members obtained e-mails from activists planning peaceful activities on animal-rights issues and a Palestinian rally, as well as a schedule for Columbus Day protests.
"These kind of actions on the part of the FBI are very dangerous in a democracy," Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU in Colorado, said at a Denver news conference.
An FBI spokesman said Thursday that the agency sees a difference between political and criminal activity.
"We don't investigate peaceful demonstrators," said Joe Parris, an FBI spokesman in Washington. "We don't investigate people exercising their First Amendment rights. We investigate criminal activity."
Colorado ACLU officials said they sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI, one of a dozen such requests announced by ACLU chapters around the country. The local group is seeking records from January 1998 to the present that the terrorism panel collected on 16 organizations and 10 people.
Monique Kelso, spokeswoman for the Denver FBI, said her office had not received the request by Thursday afternoon but that when it did, the FBI would follow established procedure to release information.
The ACLU's 24-page request, which the group posted on its website, says the FBI has labeled nonviolent protesters as members of terrorist organizations in a computerized database called the Violent Gang and Terrorist Organization File.
William Sulzman, whom Silverstein described as a former Catholic priest with a history of peaceful anti- war activities, was arrested in 2002.
As he sat in a patrol car, he heard a police radio report saying the FBI had labeled him a member of a terrorist organization. Silverstein said he suspects Sulzman was listed in the gang-and-terrorist database.
Much of the information that Silverstein used to shape his information request came out of the Denver "spy files" case in which the ACLU filed a lawsuit claiming the Denver Police Department unlawfully kept intelligence files on people and organizations involved in legal, peaceful protest.