Is the FBI Snooping on Political Groups and Ideological Publications?

The Cato Institute wants Congress to investigate the FBI after it refused to confirm or deny the existence of files on dozens of political advocacy groups.


The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, is calling on Congress to investigate whether the FBI is spying on it and other domestic political groups after public records requests raised the possibility that the Bureau has files on Cato and others. 

Patrick Eddington, a research fellow at Cato, has submitted more than 200 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for FBI files on political advocacy groups, civil liberties organizations, think tanks, and publications across the political spectrum.

For about two dozen of those requests so far, the FBI said it could neither confirm or deny whether it had collected national security or foreign intelligence records on the groups. Those organizations include the immigrant rights group Kids in Need of Defense; the Transgender Law Center; former Rep. Ron Paul's (R–Texas) Campaign for Liberty; the grassroots Fourth Amendment advocacy group Restore the Fourth; the Cato Institute; and the Reason Foundation, which publishes Reason

(You can see the Justice Department response upholding the FBI's refusal to confirm or deny the existence of national security or foreign intelligence records on Reason here.)

In a press release issued Tuesday, the Cato Institute said the responses "reveal the need for Congress to launch an aggressive investigation into FBI domestic surveillance practices."

The well-worn "can neither confirm nor deny" phrase is known as a "Glomar response." The term originated from a 1975 FOIA lawsuit by a Rolling Stone journalist against the CIA seeking records on the Glomar Explorer, a salvage ship the spy agency used in an audacious attempt to recover a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine.

A federal judge ruled that the CIA could refuse to acknowledge the existence of such records if doing so would in and of itself compromise national security. The Glomar doctrine has since spread to other federal agencies, and even trickled down to state and local government agencies, such as the NYPD.

A Glomar response, by design, obscures any attempt to discern the government's activities, or lack thereof. The responses Eddington received could mean absolutely nothing.

However, Eddington says that, while the Glomar responses don't prove that the FBI has collected intelligence on these groups, their selective use at least raises the troubling possibility that the groups mentioned above were targeted for unconstitutional surveillance or information gathering.

"We know for a fact that Glomar invocations have been used to conceal actual, ongoing activities, and we also know that they're not passing out Glomars like candy," Eddington, a former CIA analyst, says in an interview with Reason.

The FBI declined to comment on this story.

The FBI has a long and sordid history of spying on dissident political groups, from early 20th century socialists and labor organizers, to civil rights leaders and post-9/11 environmentalists and peace activists, to Black Lives Matter protesters

In 2013, The Guardian reported that the FBI kept files and created "threat assessments" on the co-founders of for six years because of a mix-up. Last September, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the FBI had to expunge its surveillance records on the site.

"We are a post-Edward Snowden organization, and so it is a matter of particular concern to us that we may be under surveillance in some sense by the FBI," says Alex Marthews, national chair of Restore the Fourth. "We would consider it highly inappropriate if we were, because we know our activities to be entirely peaceful and constitutional."

Eddington says that any such surveillance is inimical to freedom of speech.

"Anytime [the FBI] is engaged in gathering that kind of data on news organizations or on domestic groups that are exercising their First Amendment rights, that activity should be expressly prohibited in the absence of a genuine criminal predicate," Eddington says. "It should absolutely be prohibited."

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  1. The real question is why Jeff won’t answer. And by “question” I mean, “thing that is obvious”

    “chemjeff radical individualist
    January.7.2020 at 6:07 pm
    When your response consists of an insult, I know I’ve hit the mark”

    So you’re saying I’m the most correct person on this board for over a decade?

  2. The only subversives the FBI is going to find at Reason are in the comments.

    1. I am pretty sure one of the files CATO is looking for is marked “Talking points to be fed to Reason”.

      1. Many of the comments are indeed inappropriate, but the article itself is highly tendentious and in many regards wrong. “Snooping”? Here at NYU, we welcome the cooperation of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies in investigating, tracking down, and definitively silencing anyone who causes a problem on campus, particularly if it takes the form of unwanted “parody” that impinges on our reputations. See the documentation of our nation’s leading criminal “satire” case at:

  3. Hold it, I thought FBI spying was great because Orange Man Bad or something. Reason has spent the last two and a half years earnestly informing me of the glories and integrity of the deep state in their resistance against Orange Man Bad. Is that not true?

    1. The FBI is fully 100% under the control of the Trump administration. It’s a part of the Justice Department, which is an cabinet level executive department. It’s literally part of the executive branch!

      1. How cute. Someone doesn’t know the difference between political appointments and career individuals.

      2. The difference between “under the President on an org chart” and “under the control of the President” is vast.

        1. So. The president is just a figurehead then. Well if that’s the case, what SHOULD he get credit for? The economy? Cutting regulations? If so, why? He’s just a figurehead!

          1. It’s worth a bronze in the conclusion-jumping event. But lame.

          2. Damnit i thought you lost a tide pod challenge and were the nicest smelling dead body a gutters ever seen.

      3. The FBI was fully under the control of the Nixon administration.
        It was a part of the Justice Department, which was an cabinet level executive department. It was literally part of the executive branch!
        Which why the comment I am replying to does not compute.

        J. Edgar Hoover deemed presidents served at his discretion.
        J. Edgar Hoover cultivated the culture of the FBI that thrives at FBI HQ today.
        J. Edgar Hoover’s ghost literally stalks the halls of FBI HQ.
        The idea any president controls FBI is absurd.

        1. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI spied on political groups, political publications, and even US Reps and Senators. Anyone who imagines that anything at the FBI has changed since then is either delusional or a moron.

          1. Yes, the headline should have been, “Has the FBI ever stopped snooping on political groups and ideological publications?”

      4. The FBI is fully 100% under the control of the Trump administration. It’s a part of the Justice Department, which is an cabinet level executive department. It’s literally part of the executive branch!

        So…. what you are saying is that Obama ordered the FBI to spy on the Trump campaign? And Obama ordered the IRS to sabbotage conservative nonprofits participation in the election process?

        1. The fbi ordered Obama to stfu and take the blame like a good blacky.

    2. Reason criticizes the integrity of the Orange Man and the deep state.

      1. It looks like the spying took place under Obama too. In fact we know the IRS was uses for political purposes so why are you using this to attack Trump? I’m betting if there are files they go back to at least 2010.

    3. Correct, that is not true.

      1. Reason has been lying. We all know that. It was a rhetorical question. But thanks for answering it anyway.

        1. At least I know that two of my favorite sites are honeypots now.

  4. finally titled something we can answer w/YES! lol

  5. The FBI can suck my dick.

    Just wanted that to be in the record in case of congressional hearings.

    1. What are you going to do when Maxine Waters demands you prove that you have a dick?

      1. I know what I’ll say:

        “‘scuse me while I whip this out…”

      2. Say “look on your forehead”

  6. Well, that’s rather chilling.

    1. Chilling, really? After Lois Lerner at the IRS and the IG report on the investigation of the Trump campaign. Not chilling, pretty much assumed.

  7. It is a mess either way:

    1) If they always answer such requests with “yes” or “no” then they will be forced to lie in some cases and say “no” when revealing the existence of the information would compromise security.

    2) If they use the “neither confirm or deny” response, then they need to use it as well in all cases where the information is not found. Otherwise by reserving it only for cases where information does exist but revealing this would compromise security, they essentially reveal what they are trying to hide.

    There is no way out of this. They either lie one way, or the other. The only way out is not to gather information they cannot admit they have.

  8. Is the FBI Snooping on Political Groups and Ideological Publications?

    Of course we don’t.

    I mean THEY, not we. Of course they don’t.

    *starts burning files*

  9. In other words, the Glomar response is how a government agency pleads the Fifth, Interesting!

  10. Your average Congressman is going to have very little interest in whether the FBI is spying on Cato, when he has no doubt at all the FBI is spying on him, and doesn’t want what the FBI probably found to leak.

    You have to stop this sort of thing before it gets established, unfortunately. Once they have blackmail files on everybody in a position of power, it’s a bit late.

    1. I mean it isn’t like the FBI hasn’t been doing this since it’s inception. J Edgar anyone?

      1. True, but modern communications technology allows them to do it much more comprehensively.

        Indeed, an aspect of this that’s seldom discussed publicly was that the warrant wasn’t to wiretap Page, and anybody close to him. It was to look at the results of wiretapping him.

        These sorts of communications and data are routinely intercepted and stored, under the pretext that a search only occurs when human eyes and ears get involved.

  11. Is the FBI Snooping on Political Groups and Ideological Publications?

    It’s safest to assume the answer is always “yes”.

    That said, privacy problem is increasingly not one of government surveillance, it’s incidental digital surveillance in everything we do, regardless of government intent or involvement.

    There are routes out of the current mire of uncertainty and confusion. “Real privacy” is not an option.

  12. The FBI has a long and sordid history of spying on dissident political groups, from early 20th century socialists and labor organizers, to civil rights leaders and post-9/11 environmentalists and peace activists, to Black Lives Matter protesters.

    In 2013, The Guardian reported that the FBI kept files and created “threat assessments” on the co-founders of for six years because of a mix-up.

    Hmmm, there seems to be something missing from that list. Can anyone help me remember what that might be? I think it involved the color orange somehow, but I just can’t quite place it.

    1. And peeing prostitutes? I seem to remember something about that…

  13. Is the FBI Snooping on Political Groups and Ideological Publications?

    Relax, guys. Perhaps only on groups and publications that might conceivably be perceived someday as potential agents of terrorism.

    1. perceived someday as potential agents of terrorism *by the right people*


  14. Why didn’t we run this story after the IG report? Was it because they hate Trump? And now it’s their precious CATO and Reason institute that may be being spied upon (oh and don’t forget BLM)? Let’s face it, the sooner we destroy all the alphabet soup federal police agencies, the better. Reduce them all to the US Marshal service and keep a close eye on them.

    1. Perfectly stated. The self-initiated-growth-patterns of ever-growing big money government agencies needs to be stopped by the voting public.

      The public is already sending the kingdom 30% of everything; of which it has already used that to steal 30% of the land while it spends the extra wildly on ad-market (election “political stance”) campaigns to get even more support for their ever-growing kingdom.

      A note to the public – be very careful what you buy into especially when it comes with the possibility of genocide.

  15. Pro tip: if you think a government agency is surveilling a group or person, they are. Its the nature of government.

    The FBI has been surveilling groups since the J. Edgar Hoover days and the only thing that has changed is the tech they use.

  16. FBI Records: The Vault National Rifle Association (NRA)

    From the FBI file (“bufile”) on the investigation of NRA as a lobbying organisation (14 Oct 1968), instigated by an anti-gun member of Congress and which led to the NRA forming the start of the NRA-ILA and NRA-PVF to [b]really[/b] lobby [b]hard[/b]:

    “I presume that the investigation of the NRA results from its opposition to gun control legislation. In my opinion, it is fortunate that one group spoke up in opposition to prevent emotionalism from holding sway over intelligence in the legislation. I do not believe that legislation or registration of guns could have prevented the events which led to the cry for gun control legislation, nor do I believe that it will prevent criminal and lawless elements from obtaining guns. It may, however, if the NRA is destroyed or discredited, mean that fewer decent, patriotic, law-abiding young men will know how to handle a gun.”
    — Letter to J. Edgar Hoover from [name redacted by FBI] dated 14 Dec 1968.

    NRA testifying as a tax exempt educational organisation for gun owners had opposed Sen Joseph B. Tydings’ national gun registration, licensing, and taxation bill. The bill did not pass. When President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the 1968 Gun Control Act, he bitterly lamented it lacked the national registration of all firearms he had requested.

    A UPI report of 6 Dec 1968 stated FBI was asked by the DoJ to investigate NRA. DoJ said an “unidentified member of Congress” had requested the investigation into whether NRA should be treated as an unregistered lobby and stripped of its tax exemption as an aducational asscciation. Sen. Thomas Dodd (D-CT) had requested a congressional investigation of the NRA 12 Sep during Senate debate on the 1968 Gun Control Act, but publicly denied that he had requested an FBI investigation of the NRA. Pro gun control Senator Jacob Javits (D-NY) said it was not him either. Senator Joseph B. Tydings (D-MD) did not confirm nor deny being the one.

    The FBI file officially notes 10 Dec 1968 that the NRA had registered a lobbying arm (separate from the tax-exempt educational association) and FBI closed the investigation as moot. Joseph B. Tydings blamed the newly formed NRA lobbying arm for his election defeat in 1970.

  17. I’m sorry, but post-FISA report, I have lost all confidence in the FBI. The FBI needs to be broken apart, and slimmed down dramatically. The FISA Courts need to be abolished entirely.

    I have no confidence whatsoever in Christopher Wray. This man has the emotional intelligence of a three-toed sloth. AG Barr, if you are reading this, please ask your boss to fire Mr. Wray. And while I have your attention, ask Mr. Durham to pick up the pace. I’m getting impatient to see indictments. I want to see some of these assholes doing a perp walk on camera.

    1. Putting all your chips on Barr huh.

      Get used to being outraged. Anybody got any good expat tips?

      1. Yeah, bring all your stuff the first time, when you emigrate. Bringing shit in when you are an expat can get very, very expensive.

  18. The FBI keeps files on lots of innocent people and organizations. That’s what law enforcement organizations do. It’s their job. There are a lot of victimless crimes and it’s the FBIs job to investigate those. Of those, a small fraction turn into legal cases and convictions.

    Now, I’d much prefer a libertarian legal system in which investigations and cases are only started in response to claims brought by victims. But that’s not the system we live under.

  19. What would lead anyone to believe they had ever STOPPED?

  20. this on is interesting. “The FBI has a File!” Sounds creepy. Ominous even.

    But what to do? So, some group sets up shop. The People’s Front of Judea. They seem a little out there. They are politically active.

    What to do?

    Is it a Russian front to disrupt our elections? Is it a violent jihadist group? Somebody probably should ask around and see if anyone knows anything about these guys. …..

    So whatever they find out, they write it down. And it goes in a file. Now there’s a file on the People’s Front of Judea.

    Is that nefarious? What if they really are a front for ISIL? Do you want the government to know that? Or do we wait until something bad happens and then complain about the government being incompetent for not stopping them?

    Even “took a call from a concerned citizen about PETA-Stonybrook” is going to create a file.

    I suppose the real question is “what kind of file? For what purpose? Viewed by who? Vetted by who? The whole thing is more complicated than a few column inches will allow for exploration.

  21. “Is the FBI Snooping on Political Groups and Ideological Publications?”

    When are they NOT doing so?

  22. Well, duh.

  23. The investigation of CoIntelPro showed that the FBI was spending a lot of effort on domestic dissidents. A break in to the Media PA office of the FBI showed that half that office’s documents were about this.

    Many national police forces are there to suppress internal dissent and keep those in power, in power. It’s enlightening that it happens so much in this country.

  24. Is the FBI Snooping on Political Groups and Ideological Publications?

    Did the Beatles break up?
    Is Queen Victoria dead?
    Don’t tell me Kennedy got shot.

  25. öldümü ? yoksa halen yaşıyor mu anlamadım paylaşımınız için teşekkurler.

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