The FBI collected detailed data on political activities and Web postings of suspected members of a tiny environmentalist commune in southern California two years ago as part of a high-profile counterterrorism probe, bureau records show. Facing further new disclosures about the matter, the bureau last week agreed to settle a lawsuit and to pay $100,000 to Josh Connole, a 27-year-old ex-commune member who had been arrested--and later released--on suspicions he was one of the eco-terrorists who had firebombed SUV dealerships in the summer of 2003. But the bureau's rare concession of error, expected to be publicly announced soon, could bring new attention to what civil-liberties groups say is a disturbing trend: the stepped-up monitoring of domestic political activity by FBI counter-terror agents.
Connole, an anti-Iraq-war protester, had been living in a Pomona, Calif., vegan commune when a Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) targeted him after arson attacks on four nearby Hummer dealers--acts blamed on the shadowy Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which the bureau considers a domestic terror group. The case was considered serious enough that Director Robert Mueller briefed President Bush. After concluding Connole looked like a lanky, goateed suspect caught on surveillance tape, agents arrested him at gunpoint on Sept. 12, 2003, then raided the commune. After being interrogated and held for four days, he was released. Another suspect with no connection to the commune was later arrested and convicted.
In their wrongful-arrest lawsuit, Connole's lawyers demanded to know why the FBI looked at Connole in the first place. Court documents show agents were initially tipped off by a neighbor to "suspicious" activity at the commune the night of the attacks. (In fact, says Connole, members were simply helping one of the residents move out.) Agents placed the commune under surveillance and developed a political profile of the residents, discovering the owner of the house and his father "have posted statements on websites opposing the use of fossil fuels," one doc reads. Another says the owner had ties to a local chapter of Food Not Bombs, an "anarcho-vegan food distribution group." Among activities flagged in bureau docs: the father of the owner had conducted a "one man' daily protest" outside a Toyota office, was interviewed for an article called "Dude, Where's my Electric Car!?" and posted info on a Web site announcing "Stop Norway Whaling!" Critics say such info has been increasingly collected by agents since the then Attorney General John Ashcroft relaxed FBI guidelines in 2002. "How does advocacy of electric cars become the basis for suspicion?" asks Bill Paparian, Connole's lawyer. Bureau officials say they collect such info only when there might be ties to violence or terrorism. A spokesman declined to comment on Connole's case, saying that because no settlement has been entered into the court record, it remains "a pending legal matter."