Debate is growing nationwide about whether FBI agents' visits to members of anarchist groups in Lawrence and other cities last month were part of a legitimate criminal investigation or a fishing expedition meant to stifle dissent.
Citing a "senior U.S. law enforcement official," The Associated Press reported Friday that agents were acting on a tip from an informant who told of a plot by anarchists from the Midwest to throw Molotov cocktails at television vans at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
But to Dick Kurtenbach, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri, the tip sounds "a bit flimsy" to warrant the kind of response the FBI undertook, which includes monitoring Web sites and meetings.
"The anarchists are a very political group, and it would be easy, I think, to chill their First Amendment rights of political expression in an act such as this," he said. "You would hope that the FBI has the judgment to decide which kind of lead warrants that kind of intrusiveness and which kind of lead needs to be looked at with some suspicion."
On Friday, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft defended the visits. He said agents interviewed a "very limited number of people" nationwide who agents thought either were participating in a plan to commit violence at the convention or might have known about such a plan. Ashcroft's comments came after three Democratic lawmakers asked for an investigation into whether the visits stepped on First Amendment rights to free speech and free assembly.
The issue, first documented July 24 in the Journal-World, took on new life last week after several national media outlets reported the story.
Just following leads
Jeff Lanza, an FBI spokesman in Kansas City, said agents were following investigative leads and nothing more.
Federal officials have denied the operation threatens civil rights. They note the FBI interviews are voluntary and that protest meetings and Internet postings being monitored are public forums.
The Justice Department, through its office of legal counsel, concluded in an April memo that two FBI bulletins were proper in alerting law enforcement officers last year about expected protests in Washington, San Francisco and Miami.
Recent FBI bulletins about anti-war protests have urged local police to "be alert" and report "potentially illegal acts" to federal terrorism task forces. Illegal activity -- such as bombings, vandalism or trespass -- "falls outside the scope of the First Amendment," the Justice Department concluded. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and the right to assemble.
Activists fear a repeat of the last Republican convention, in Philadelphia, where authorities were accused of rounding up protesters on trumped-up charges before they could take to the streets. Police raided a warehouse and seized puppets that protesters planned to use as props, and arrested an organizer on misdemeanor charges and held him on $1 million bail before his case was dropped.
Local anarchist David Strano said agents who came to Lawrence asked people whether they knew of any violent disruption planned not just for the Democratic National Convention, but the Republican Convention, presidential debates and election. He estimated that between 25 and 30 people were questioned in Colorado, Kansas and Missouri.
On two days of visits to Lawrence -- a Friday and the next Monday -- agents made personal contact with two or three protesters in the city. They left messages for several others and contacted protesters' parents at home and work.
Agents visited protester Vanessa Hays' mother at the mother's home in Topeka even though Hays' Lawrence address is listed in the phone book.
"If they really were investigating a crime, I think they would have gone out of their way to actually question everyone they were looking for as opposed to giving up after two days," Strano said.
In a press conference Friday televised on C-SPAN, Ashcroft said the agents' visits were meant to ensure no violent acts interfered with lawful protests or media coverage of the Democratic convention.
"The interviews we conducted were designed to support freedom, to enrich it," he said.