Bookstore owners turn tables, question why they were targey of FBI probe - The Buffalo News, 03/18/2016

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The FBI kept tabs on a Buffalo bookstore owner for two years.

Agents watched Leslie Pickering’s home and store, monitored his mail and used grand jury subpoenas to gather information about him.

At the core of the investigation was the allegation, still unproven, that Pickering, a longtime environmental activist, was operating an eco-terrorism cell out of Burning Books, his West Side bookstore.

The investigation turned up no evidence of a threat and was shut down after a confidential informant recanted part of her story, according to newly released FBI documents.

Now, Pickering is asking questions about the legitimacy of the investigation and the FBI’s reliance on confidential informants he believes are mentally ill and had an ax to grind.

His criticism of the government comes at a time in the post 9/11 era when the balance between law enforcement’s need to know and people’s civil liberties is a front-burner concern.

“The only crime here is the FBI targeting free-speech activists,” Pickering said. “That’s the conspiracy.”

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It’s no secret the FBI was watching Pickering. Evidence of the investigation popped up three years ago. But the documents from his FBI file reveal for the first time why the government was investigating him and who was behind the allegation that he was recruiting individuals for an eco-terrorism cell.

To hear Pickering talk, the only surprising aspect of the FBI investigation was the “make-believe scenario” the agents created and the confidential sources who regularly met and talked with them.

“We were laughing,” Pickering said of the eco-terrorism allegation. “I find it amazing that they concocted this whole thing.”

The FBI’s interest in Pickering is rooted in his ties to the Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, a radical environmental group that gained national attention in the late 1990s. ELF is best known for a series of arsons at businesses – timber companies, car dealerships and slaughterhouses – it believed were destroying the environment.

The Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center also considered the Earth Liberation Front that Pickering represented to be an “eco-terrorism” group, and the head of the league said the FBI had good reason to keep an eye on him.

“He’s still advocating a pretty radical ideology, and in some sort of way violence against property, and this is criminal activity that will get the attention of law enforcement,” Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said three years ago.

Pickering, who grew up in East Aurora and West Seneca, says he never did anything criminal, although his role included passing along information the group wanted shared with the public and press. He says he quit ELF’s press office in Oregon more than 10 years ago, and yet the FBI continues to watch his comings and goings.

“Everyone assumes it is happening, but when you feel it happening, it’s jarring,” Theresa Baker-Pickering said of the investigation.

The FBI declined to comment on the credibility of its sources in the Pickering investigation, but challenged any suggestion that it was frivolous or manufactured.

“When we receive credible information of a threat, it’s our duty to investigate that threat,” said Special Agent J. Michael Tapen, head of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Buffalo. “We take that very seriously.”

Tapen said the Pickering investigation, like all domestic terrorism investigations, was regularly reviewed by FBI lawyers with an eye toward preserving Pickering’s civil liberties and, in the end, everything was done by the book.

“There’s a tremendous amount of oversight in these cases,” he said.

The FBI documents also reveal for the first time that Baker-Pickering, Nathaniel Buckley and as many as six others also were under investigation.

Co-owner of the bookstore, Buckley is perhaps best known for his 2011 arrest at an anti-war protest outside an M&T Bank office downtown. A judge later criticized the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority officers who arrested Buckley, describing their actions as “improper” and “repugnant to this court’s sense of justice.”

For Buckley, there’s a link between his arrest five years ago and the FBI investigation that followed two years later. There is also validation.

“I think this shows our movements are powerful,” he said.

Origins of FBI probe

The FBI shut down its investigation into Pickering more than a year ago, but the identity of the people behind it remains a closely guarded secret.

It’s clear from the newly released documents that the probe began with a confidential informant who provided the FBI with information about Pickering’s “involvement in recruiting for and forming an eco-terrorism cell in the Buffalo area.”

Pickering was, according to the source, a “mastermind sociopath” who often advocated the use of violence in speeches at the bookstore, the FBI documents state. The source also claimed the targets of Pickering’s recruitment efforts were members of the Occupy movement.

A short time later, a second confidential source made contact with the FBI, and the agency began several months of spot surveillance and mail monitoring.

“All of a sudden, two informants fall out of the sky,” Pickering said of the confidential sources.

Pickering, Baker-Pickering and Buckley say they know who the FBI sources are – two disgruntled former tenants – and are convinced they were behind the initial allegations that led to the investigation. They also consider one of the sources to be unstable and possibly mentally ill.

While the documents indicate the investigation began with an informant who approached the FBI, Pickering thinks it was the FBI who recruited and groomed the source. So do his lawyers.

“It’s crystal clear they were cooperating with the FBI,” Michael Kuzma, one of Pickering’s lawyers, said of the former tenants. “And I think they were sent here by the FBI.”

Kuzma said Pickering’s former tenants were not shy about expressing their dislike for his client or their desire to see Burning Books, Pickering’s Connecticut Street bookstore, shut down.

Informants have been a part of police investigations for decades and have taken on even greater importance in recent years, especially in domestic terrorism cases.

At the FBI, like many law enforcement agencies, the use of informants has come under criticism over the years. After the Whitey Bulger case in Boston, the FBI has found itself under scrutiny for using informants who are criminals themselves or who have a history of mental illness.

“Historically, the people they recruit have mental health issues and are wholly suspect,” said Daire Brian Irwin, one of Pickering’s lawyers.

Relying on informants

The FBI relied heavily on informants in the Pickering investigation, and internal documents indicate there were at least three separate unnamed sources working with the agency.

They visited the bookstore and were “tasked” to attend lectures, including one on the “Failure of Nonviolence.” Then, in January 2013, one of the sources backtracked on some of the source’s story about Pickering.

“I think it’s significant when one of your only sources recants their information,” said Baker-Pickering.

The investigation ended a year later.

The FBI would not identify its sources in the Pickering investigation but indicated the information they provided was credible.

“The FBI takes civil liberties very seriously,” Tapen said. “There are multiple reviews at different levels – at the local and executive level – to ensure those civil liberties aren’t violated.”

Pickering’s success in opening some of his FBI file has allowed the who, what and why of the investigation to become known to those who believe they also may have been targeted by the FBI.

“It doesn’t surprise me, but it angers me that our taxpayers’ dollars are spent on investigating people advocating freedom for everyone,” said John Buckley, Nathaniel Buckley’s father and a longtime Buffalo activist.

John Buckley thinks he may have been targeted as well, and wonders why the government insists on supporting corporations that destroy the environment while going after activists trying to save it.

When Joseph M. Finnerty, one of the region’s top First Amendment lawyers, thinks about the FBI investigations of Pickering, he wonders about the “chilling” effect on people who know Pickering or go to the bookstore.

“I’m proud of him for pushing back against this behavior,” said Finnerty, one of his lawyers. “One of the most patriotic things someone can do is to push back and put government conduct under scrutiny.”

The victims of ELF’s eco-terrorism might tell a different story.

“ELF firebombings are hate crimes against those of us whose missions in life are to increase human knowledge and bring a sense of wonder to the classes we teach,” wrote University at Washington professor Toby Bradshaw.

Bradshaw’s office was firebombed in the mistaken belief that he was planning to conduct experiments on genetically engineered trees.

The FBI’s investigation of Leslie Pickering

What did agents do and when did they do it?

January 2012: FBI begins an investigation into allegations that the Buffalo bookstore owner is operating an eco-terrorism cell.

February 2012: Agents identify Theresa Baker-Pickering and Nathaniel Buckley as new targets of the investigation.

April 2012: Agents conduct the first in a series of spot surveillance checks of Pickering’s West Side home and business.

September 2012: The U.S. Postal Service mistakenly leaves evidence of its mail monitoring in Pickering’s mailbox.

January 2013: One of the confidential sources who sparked the FBI investigation recants part of her story.

September 2013: A confidential source is directed to attend a lecture at Burning Books on the “Failure of Nonviolence.”

January 2014: The FBI closes its investigation after finding no evidence that Pickering is a threat.

Source: FBI documents

Adam Federman, a freelance journalist, contributed to the reporting in this story. email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com