A Federal Eye on the Raging Grannies?

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The Raging Grannies, an organization of aging activists whose chapters across the U.S. and Canada used sit-ins, songs and satire to protest the war, might not seem like the most obvious target for government surveillance. But the ACLU of Washington State filed a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests early Tuesday that demanded more information from the FBI and Department of Defense about what the ACLU claims is overreaching government surveillance of this group and 10 other non-violent political organizations in Washington State.

Concerns about the group are connected to an annual maritime festival called Seafair, which draws a flotilla of Navy ships — and, increasingly, antiwar protesters — to this port city each year. Documents released through an earlier, more narrow Freedom of Information Act request by the local ACLU chapter and first reported on in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer showed that the Raging Grannies had been monitored by the FBI in 2003 out of concern that the Grannies, usually passive protesters, might be connected to a more aggressive group suspected of planning to chain themselves to navy ships as an act of civil disobedience.

In filing a battery of FOIA requests on behalf of the political groups, the ACLU is opening another front in its nationwide fight to discover the extent of government spying on domestic activists under the Bush administration. The ACLU of Pittsburgh announced last week that it had obtained documents showing that the FBI there had monitored the Thomas Merton Center, a religious group devoted to peace. Members of the group engaged in some antiwar leafleting in 2002, and the Pittsburgh documents reportedly show that FBI agents took photos of the leafleters and conducted other surveillance.

The FBI maintains that the Pittsburgh case involved a specific investigative lead that suggested a link between the antiwar group and an ongoing investigation, and when no such link was found, the surveillance was terminated. "We don't surveil antiwar groups based on their First Amendment activities," FBI spokesman Bill Carter told Time.com.

The ACLU contends that in Washington State the FBI has overstepped its mandate to detect and foil terror plots. "The monitoring shows an inappropriate and wasteful government interest in groups that have no history of violence," said Doug Honig, spokesman for the ACLU of Washington.