March 21, 2016
FBI investigated Buffalo bookstore owner for over two years
by Julia Fleischaker
The FBI has been investigating a Buffalo, New York bookstore owner for two years, under suspicion that he has been “operating an eco-terrorism cell out of Burning Books, his West Side bookstore.” According to the Buffalo News, the investigation against Leslie Pickering was shut down only after a witness recanted part of her story. And now Pickering is accusing the FBI of having an ax to grind.
Phil Fairbanks of the the Buffalo News reports:
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.”
The FBI’s investigation included sending their sources to the bookstore, and tasking them with attending certain lectures hosted at Burning Books. The investigation started as a result of Pickering’s ties to the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a radical environmental group known for a series of fire-bombings in the 1990s. It’s worth noting that both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center consider the ELF an “eco-terrorism” group.
Pickering acknowledges his links to the ELF, but alleges that he did nothing illegal. Fairbanks reports that Pickering’s role included “passing along information the group wanted shared with the public and press,” but that Pickering maintains he cut ties with the organization after he quit their press office in Oregon more than a decade prior.
The investigation was shut down in early 2014, after the FBI concluded that Pickering posed no threat. Pickering has just recently learned the identity of the FBI’s anonymous sources, and is questioning why they relied on the testimony of what he refers to as “two disgruntled former tenants.” Fairbanks reports that Pickering and his lawyer also consider one of the FBI’s two sources to be “unstable and possibly mentally ill.” The investigation included sending the sources to the bookstore, and directing them to attend lectures there.
In July of last year, Pickering set up a multimedia exhibit designed to shine a light on the FBI’s use of surveillance. Speaking to the Buffalo News when it opened, he told them he hoped it would pose the question, “‘Is this free speech or criminal activity?…It will also raise the question, ‘Did the FBI engage in criminal activity?’”
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.