The FBI monitored a prominent anti-war website for years, in part because agents mistakenly believed it had threatened to hack the bureau’s own site.
Internal documents show that the FBI’s monitoring of antiwar.com, a news and commentary website critical of US foreign policy, was sparked in significant measure by a judgment that it had threatened to “hack the FBI website” and involved a formal assessment of the “threat” the site posed to US national security.
But antiwar.com never threatened to hack the FBI website. Heavily redacted FBI documents, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and shared with the Guardian, show that Eric Garris, the site’s managing editor, passed along to the bureau a threat he received against his own website.
Months later, the bureau characterized antiwar.com as a potential perpetrator of a cyberattack against the bureau’s website – a rudimentary error that persisted for years in an FBI file on the website. The mistake appears to have been a pillar of the FBI’s reasoning for monitoring a site that is protected by the first amendment’s free-speech guarantees.
“The improper investigation led to Garris and Raimondo being flagged in other documents, and is based on inappropriate targeting and sloppy intelligence work the FBI relied on in its initial memo,” said Julia Mass, an attorney with the ACLU of northern California, which filed the Freedom of Information Act request, and shared the documents with the Guardian.
FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said the bureau could not comment, as the ACLU’s litigation of the antiwar.com case is ongoing.
On 12 September 2001, Garris received an email with the subject line “YOUR SITE IS GOING DOWN.”
“Be warned assholes, ill be posting your site address to all the hack boards tonight, telling them about the little article at the moscowtimes and all. YOUR SITE IS HISTORY,” the unredacted parts of the email read.
Concerned, Garris forwarded the threatening email to the FBI field office in San Francisco, where he lives. (It is contained in the disclosed FBI documents.) “It was a threat and I wanted to report it,” Garris said.
But by 7 January 2002, someone in the field office characterized the message as “A THREAT BY GARRIS TO HACK FBI WEBSITE.”
According to unredacted portions of the documents, that apparent mix-up was the first time antiwar.com came onto the FBI’s radar – a purview that would last at least six years.
Garris said he never heard back from the FBI, and had no reason to believe that the incident had any broader impact, until he saw what was in his FBI file. “It was pretty scary to think that in my FBI file, and perhaps other government agency files, there was a report that I was considered a threat based on that,” Garris said.
“That may follow me for the rest of my life. Any time I interact with any law enforcement or government agencies, they’re going to be able to see that, and make evaluations of me based on it. It’s very scary.”
The mix-up did not stay limited to the San Francisco field office. In 2004, FBI officials in Newark, New Jersey, compiled a “threat assessment” of Garris and his colleague Justin Raimondo.
The 2004 “threat assessment” took note of Raimondo and Garris’ anti-war views, listed articles and media appearances in which they made their arguments, and reported that “peaceful” anti-war protesters in the UK passed out literature referencing antiwar.com that suggested the US government was holding Israeli spies in connection to the September 11 attacks.