Activist groups fear domestic spying

ALBANY — David Potorti lost his oldest brother, Jim, when an airplane hijacked by terrorists smashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

In a moment, the fiery impact killed about 300 employees who worked at insurance giant Marsh and McLennan’s 95th-floor, north-tower office.

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A month later, Potorti says he began drawing federal scrutiny by being photographed and videotaped as he waved a banner in opposition to the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan.

Now, as director of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, Potorti wants the FBI to admit it has been spying on him and others who openly exhibit opposition to U.S. domestic and foreign policy.

The New York Civil Liberties Union filed Freedom of Information requests on Tuesday asking the FBI to come clean on behalf of 14 prominent political and religious groups around the state.

Officials say they believe there are scores of others.

"My personal feelings run from anger to fear to, well I guess it’s largely anger," Potorti said in a telephone interview from his North Carolina home.

"Why is it that my questioning of the government’s response to 9/11 makes me a suspect whenever I’m out holding a sign?"

On Tuesday, at the same time the NYCLU was submitting papers to the federal government’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, American civil libertarians in Pennsylvania were releasing data they got by FOIL that confirmed the FBI is spying on the pacifist Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh.

The revelations came during Sunshine Week, which focuses on the public’s right to know and keep its government accountable.

The Freedom of Information Act is a powerful tool to force the government to disclose information it doesn’t want to disclose, said Corey Stoughton, an NYCLU staff attorney. "Today’s requests will pull back the veil of secrecy that the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense and the FBI have used to hide unlawful surveillance."

NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said a list would stretch on for pages if she had to name all the agencies across New York that believe they have been spied upon.

"All are law-abiding, but have engaged in dissent of one kind or another," she said. "But any group is vulnerable to the wide-angle lens of a government that refuses to distinguish between lawful dissent and threats to national security."

Included in Tuesday’s FOIL request are animal rights activists.

There’s a Quaker action committee, parents and veterans for peace and the statewide Council for American-Islamic Relations.

All value their rights and privacy, Lieberman said.

"New York has been the center of anti-war activity and is the home of scores of vocal Muslim groups," she went on. "Given what we now know about the government spying on political and religious groups around the country, we have every reason to believe that such abuses of power are being committed in New York."

What isn’t as sure is that the information will be forthcoming, she said.

"I think we can expect they will engage in delays and obstruction at every step," Lieberman admitted. "But we’ll be monitoring the timing and the response and push them to give us what we are entitled to, when we are entitled to it."

Declassified documents, some released after previous FOIL requests, reveal that the FBI has engaged in extensive spying on the national ACLU and its regional affiliates, including the NYCLU, according to information it provided.

That probe generated tens of thousands of pages of information from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

John Leinung, a 9/11 group steering committee member, lost his son, Paul Battaglia, when the towers fell. He said it scares him to know the government spies on peaceful, law-abiding political activity.

"If our freedoms were under attack on 9/11, then we who lost so much that day must work to protect those freedoms from both outright attack and slow erosion," he said.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at 434-2403 or by e-mail at mbolton@timesunion.com.

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