RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A civil liberties group filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of an ex-Marine who was detained in a psychiatric facility after posting anti-government messages on Facebook, using the case to criticize a program that looks for veterans who may have become extremists.
Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute filed suit in Richmond over the weeklong detention last August of Brandon J. Raub, a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Attorneys for Raub claimed his detention came under a federal program called "Operation Vigilant Eagle" involving surveillance of veterans who express views critical of the government.
The 27-year-old veteran from Chesterfield was taken into custody last Aug. 16, after being questioned by local police and federal agents about strident Facebook posts against the government. The FBI said the interview was prompted by complaints from people who read his posts, including some that spoke of a pending revolution. One said "a day of reckoning" was coming, and another said: "Sharpen my axe; I'm here to sever heads."
A circuit court judge in Virginia's Prince George County ordered Raub released last Aug. 23 after the Rutherford Institute came to his aide. Judge Allan Sharrett said at the time that the government's case was "so devoid of any factual allegations that it could not be reasonably expected to give rise to a case or controversy."
The Federal Bureau of Investigation launched "Operation Vigilant Eagle" in 2009 to target white supremacists and "militia/sovereign-citizen extremist groups," with a focus on veterans, according to memos obtained and reported at the time by The Wall Street Journal. A memo detailing the national operation was issued by the Department of Homeland Security later.
The lawsuit accuses 10 unnamed FBI agents, two Chesterfield County police officers and local mental health officials of violating Raub's civil rights. Institute attorneys allege that the attempt to label Raub as "mentally ill" and his commitment were designed to "suppress and chill his constitutionally-protected speech and to defame and discredit him and his beliefs."
They asked that he be awarded unspecified damages.
"Brandon Raub's case exposed the seedy underbelly of a governmental system that is targeting military veterans for expressing their discontent over America's rapid transition to a police state," said John W. Whitehead, president of the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, which provides free legal services to those who claim their rights were violated.
He added: "Brandon Raub is not the first veteran to be targeted for speaking out against the government. Hopefully, by holding officials accountable, we can ensure that Brandon is the last to suffer in this way."
Spokeswomen for the FBI and Department of Homeland Security did not comment on the lawsuit or whether the operation remained in effect. Chesterfield officials also had no response.
But after the memos sparked criticism from conservatives and veterans in 2009, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appeared on NBC's Today Show and defended the operation. She also apologized to veterans who were offended.
"This is an assessment of things just to be wary of, not to infringe on constitutional rights, certainly not to malign our veterans," she said at the time.
The agencies haven't publicly outlined the operation. But in the 2009 memo, the FBI said its conclusion that there was a surge in such activities was based on confidential sources, undercover operations, reporting from law enforcement agencies and publicly available information.
Raub drew support after a video of him being led away from his home in handcuffs last August was posted on You Tube, fueling criticism that the government was trampling on his free-speech rights. The Rutherford Institute came to his defense, characterizing the government's actions as those of a police state.
Raub was not charged with a crime but authorities had said he was involuntarily committed so he could be evaluated and monitored.