WASHINGTON — In a time marked by high-profile conflicts between journalists and the government, one such story has gone largely unnoticed: the lawsuit brought by longtime libertarian writer Justin Raimondo against the FBI for its surveillance of him and his site in the mid-2000s.
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Raimondo sued the FBI in May of this year to obtain the full documents relating to a proposed investigation of him and his site, Antiwar, on suspicion of his being a foreign agent. The FBI has so far resisted releasing the full documents, and Raimondo says he doesn't expect they will. But the suit, which enters its next phase at the end of the month, raises questions about what kind of protections small ideological outfits can expect — especially ones that are known for being controversial and conspiratorial, like Antiwar — in an age when even The New York Times and the Associated Press can't avoid becoming entangled in a tug-of-war with the government over the course of their work.
"If it could happen to us, first they came for Antiwar.com, who's next?" Raimondo said in a phone interview from his home in Northern California. "Why are they watching us? Is this their job?"
Raimondo first learned of the FBI's interest in him in 2011. Someone he didn't know filed a Freedom of Information Act request on a different topic and received FBI documents from 2004 that included a section that requested an investigation into Raimondo and his co-editor Eric Garris and posted them online. A reader alerted the Antiwar.com team to the documents.
The document relates to Raimondo's controversial writings about 9/11, specifically stories he did about the "dancing Israelis" conspiracy theory that developed in the aftermath of the attacks. It states that a person under investigation after the attacks had visited Antiwar.com.
"The whole point of the memo is to link us to a foreign person," Raimondo said. "They were justifying a closer look at Antiwar.com and me and Eric specifically."
"It's clear to me at least if you read the document that the 'foreign power' they accuse us of being agents of is .. Al Qaeda," Raimondo added in an email. "Elsewhere in the memo the author refers to intelligence gathered under FISA court authority to link us to an ongoing terrorism investigation -- some alleged terrorist _visited our web site_!"
"I had written about that particular subject, and, in the process, had uncovered an FBI 'terrorist watch' list posted on the web sites of two European banks, simply by googling one of the names on that list," Raimondo said. "This was, in short, public information, but it raised the FBI's hackles, as you can see in the memo, and he eventually comes to the conclusion that we're could be 'agents of a foreign power.'"
Raimondo acknowledged that his views, especially about Sept. 11, may have attracted the FBI's attention in the first place. His book The Terror Enigma: 9/11 and the Israeli Connection, which argues that Israel had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks but did not inform the United States, came out the year before the FBI memo proposing an investigation was written.
"I was all over this story," Raimondo said of the Israel connection theory.
The lawsuit was filed in May in the U.S. District Court in Northern California.
"So the status is that we filed in May and we have gotten an answer from the government," said Julia Mass, one of the ACLU lawyers handling the case. "The answer doesn't really say anything."
Mass said the plaintiffs will know soon whether they will receive any documents.
"We have a status conference set with the court at the end of August," she said. The expectation is that we will figure out a schedule on which to receive the documents that we've sought."
A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment on the case.
"As you may know the FBI cannot comment on matters pending litigation," said FBI spokesman Christopher Allen. "We also cannot comment or provide additional information beyond what was processed via FOIA."
Raimondo said he isn't sure when the surveillance began or stopped, or if it did stop.
"That was 2004," he said. "Did they actually do the investigation? Are they still doing the investigation?"
The goal is to "see hopefully to some degree the extent to which there was follow-up on the recommendation that an investigation be opened," Mass said, and to make the point that "the freedom of the press is as important for Antiwar.com as it is for the Associated Press or The New York Times because part of the democratic process and particularly the way political speech happens today is that it's really important for all voices to be heard and for all speakers to be free."
In the meantime, Raimondo says Antiwar's donor base is drying up.
"Our donations are cut by about over 30%," he said. "Some of that could be the recession, but it's been pretty radical. You have no idea how many people said, you know what, I would give money but I don't want to be identified with Antiwar.com."
Raimondo said he wasn't surprised that the case has received so little mainstream attention.
"Prior to the Snowden thing all kinds of people have been spied on and nobody made that big of a deal about it," Raimondo said. "And of course it's us, so it's not like we're James Risen or anybody from Fox News."