Published in partnership with Shadowproof.
The FBI conducted an espionage investigation into the Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPRI), a renowned arms monitoring group.
According to documents obtained by Shadowproof under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the FBI began investigating SIPRI after the group sent a generic questionnaire to an arms manufacturer. The questionnaire inquired about the characteristics of a missile the arms manufacturer was developing.
One of the FOIA documents is a confidential memo from the head of the FBI’s San Diego division to the Director of the FBI, warning the Director that SIPRI’s questionnaire constitutes “a rather blatant attempt to obtain sensitive if not classified information regarding U.S. weapons systems.” Though the records are dated 1980, they contain no evidence that the case was ever closed.
Moreover, the FBI redacted the file number (used to identify related bureau records), making it difficult to uncover any related files about the case via FOIA. Ryan Shapiro, a PhD candidate at MIT and expert on FOIA, said the FBI frequently redacts file numbers in order to inappropriately conceal information and thwart FOIA requests.
Shadowproof gave the director of SIPRI, Dan Smith, an opportunity to review the document. Smith quipped, “If you thought that there was a nest of spies somewhere trying to get information, is it very likely that they would do it by sending out a questionnaire? It’s an image of spying out of Monty Python.”
“All SIPRI research material has always come from publicly available sources, which includes that we ask governments and others for information. If they are willing to give it, then they do, and if they’re not, then they don’t. But we’ve never gone for any kind of closed-source, classified information.”
Asked why SIPRI was inquiring about the weapons system, Smith replied, “A big part of our mission for 50 years (we were founded in 1966) is what today would be called transparency. In the old days it was just, ‘getting the facts out.’ The founding idea is that if people know more about world military spending, arms production, the arms trade and so on, then they will be better placed to make sensible and intelligent decisions about it.”
Smith is no absolutist on the matter of transparency regarding arms.
“I personally for certain kinds of information about how a weapon works and so on, I think it’s right that that stuff is kept secret and I would really not like too many people to know about it. What we’re interested in is the questions around that: for example, the financial and economic implications. How much do these really cost to research, to make, to maintain, to deploy. What are the implications of policy of deploying them. You don’t need to know the details of how the weapon gets its effect in order to be able to think through what the policy implications are of deploying [them].”
According to Smith, SIPRI had never been informed of the investigation or what it concluded. Though the government may not have notified SIPRI, it did appear to notify other components of the intelligence community besides the FBI, per DoD documents regarding SIPRI’s questionnaire also obtained by Shadowproof under FOIA. According to Shapiro, the DoD documents contain a notation suggesting that copies were sent to both the CIA and the Intelligence and Threat Analysis Center, formerly a part of US Army intelligence.
Shapiro also pointed out that the FBI memo was labeled “FCI”—foreign counterintelligence. “Foreign counterintelligence is espionage. They’re saying, ‘We think this is potentially in the service of a foreign country’ (almost certainly the Russians),” Shapiro explained.
Another document shows the FBI requesting headquarters search its records for intelligence on SIPRI, specifically requesting a search for both “subversive” and “nonsubversive” subjects.
Other parts of the FBI documents attribute their knowledge of SIPRI’s questionnaire to “a confidential source who has assisted the…FBI in the past.” The informant’s name is redacted with a note to “protect” their identity.
Smith expressed concerns that the FBI’s snooping might have a chilling effect on arms monitoring organizations like SIPRI. “I think that the more concerning thing is the general atmosphere and mood if people were to begin to feel that they need to be looking over their shoulders, thinking twice about the stuff which they have been talking about perfectly openly about before, then you know that’s negative for our work and for informed debate in general.”
To better understand the nature of the FBI investigation and if it could be revisited today, Shadowproof contacted former FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley, who served with the bureau for over 20 years, retiring in 2004. Even if this was just a preliminary investigation, according to Rowley, nowadays such investigations have become far easier to conduct. “After 9/11, they have lowered the threshold of any kind of evidence,” Rowley explained. “I think to open a preliminary inquiry, it requires no level of suspicion.”
As overzealous as the FBI might’ve been when it opened this case, the safeguards against some overreach have only become fewer since then. As Rowley put it, “There were these Attorney General guidelines that came into place after the Church Committee found that the FBI and other agencies had abused their authority. They set up levels for opening investigations and these especially applied to intelligence and national security matters because of the abuses that had occurred in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Those Attorney General guidelines were very quickly watered down by Ashcroft. Then there was a second time where they watered it down even further. Then right before Obama became president they really revamped all of the Attorney General guidelines, basically tossed them out. The level for preliminary inquiry was extremely low.”
According to Rowley, the Obama administration never restored the Church Committee’s safeguards against FBI overreach. “They did nothing to change it. As far as I know, these are very relaxed almost to the point of being nonexistent. This is a sea change from prior to 9/11.”
Rowley was critical of the investigation on its face, admonishing that “Agents and investigators should exercise good judgment in looking at the entity, at the background of this nonprofit…it’s a reputable nonprofit working on monitoring arms. That should have played into the decision.”
The arms manufacturer queried by SIPRI would seem to agree with Rowley’s assessment of SIPRI as reputable; according to one of the documents, it ended up answering most of the questions posed by the questionnaire.
Read the FBI documents obtained by Shadowproof below: