Bill Sulzman has protested nonviolently against U.S. military policy for more than 30 years. That, he discovered last week, apparently makes him a "terrorist" in the eyes of the government.
Now, Sulzman, a veteran Colorado Springs peace activist, is concerned that he and others will be subjected to FBI surveillance under new rules that allow the agency to spy on domestic groups and individuals suspected of terrorism.
Last Thursday, May 29, Sulzman was arrested while participating in a political protest at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Between 15 and 20 activists demonstrated against the policies of U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who was speaking at the Academy's graduation ceremony.
El Paso County sheriff's deputies broke up the demonstration at the request of Academy officials, who maintain the protesters were on Academy property without permission. Four protesters refused to leave, arguing that they were standing in the public right-of-way. The four, who included Sulzman, Peter Sprunger-Froese, Mary Sprunger-Froese and Mary Sheetz, were arrested for trespassing.
Former priest and soldier
While the four were being held, deputies ran a routine criminal background check on each of them. That's when both Sulzman and Mary Sprunger-Froese who were in separate squad cars say they heard something over the police radio: Sulzman, a voice said, was listed by the FBI as belonging to a "terrorist organization."
Though Sulzman was held for about 30 minutes longer than the rest, all four activists eventually received court summonses and were released. Still, Sulzman says he wants to know why he's listed as a terrorist. A former soldier and Catholic priest, Sulzman estimates he's been arrested more than 20 times in the last 30 years, but always for non-violent protests, including various acts of civil disobedience.
So far, he's been unable to get answers from the sheriff's office or the FBI. The agencies also didn't offer the Independent much information.
A spokeswoman for the sheriff's office, Lt. Melissa Hartman, said she couldn't divulge what information the FBI provided on Sulzman, saying it would be "privileged criminal-justice information."
Ann Atanacio, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Denver office, refused to comment specifically on Sulzman's case, citing privacy concerns.
Propensity to violate laws
However, Atanacio hypothesized that someone might be included on an FBI list of potential terrorists for "any number of things," and that such lists could include "persons who have propensity to violate laws at sensitive national security installations."
That would fit Sulzman, who has often been arrested for nonviolent actions at military bases.
A spokesman at FBI's national headquarters, meanwhile, said the agency "absolutely" does not maintain lists on peaceful protesters.
"The databases we have are on known violent [people], or those who have a propensity for violence, or who have threatened with violence in some way in the past," said the spokesman, Paul Bresson. "There's no 'peaceful demonstration list' anywhere within any FBI files."
Bresson also said he couldn't discuss Sulzman's case in specific.
Sulzman says he's determined to get to the bottom of the matter. Like many other political activists, he was concerned to learn last week that the FBI, in the wake of intelligence failures prior to Sept. 11, has received broad new powers to spy on domestic groups and individuals.
The FBI has said the new powers will only be used against suspected terrorists. But that no longer reassures Sulzman.
"That I'm labeled a 'terrorist' means a lot of people are labeled 'terrorists,'" Sulzman said.