June 6, 2002

Civil Liberties: J. Edgar Ashcroft?

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On May 30, 2002, the same day America mourned the victims of the September 11 attack and the conclusion of the Ground Zero cleanup, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller III unveiled sweeping new surveillance powers for the FBI. In order to cover up its own incompetence in failing to properly analyze the data it already had before September 11, the FBI has now been given wide latitude to more effectively spy on law-abiding citizens.

Under what New York Times columnist William Safire characterized as “the new Ashcroft-Mueller diktat,” the FBI will now be able to conduct investigations for up to a year without the necessity of showing any suspicion of criminal activity. The G-men and G-women can create dossiers on anyone they like, tracking the Internet sites we visit, trips we take, our political and charitable contributions, magazine subscriptions, book purchases, and meetings we attend. Anyone perceived as critical of the government is fair game for an FBI “fishing expedition.” It will discredit and discourage those who seek to exercise their First Amendment right to dissent.

The relaxation of the FBI’s surveillance guidelines will likely return us to the days of J. Edgar Hoover’s dreaded COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program). During the McCarthy period of the 1950s, in an effort to eradicate the perceived threat of communism, the government engaged in widespread illegal surveillance to threaten and silence anyone who had an unorthodox political viewpoint. Many people were jailed, blacklisted and lost their jobs. Thousands of lives were shattered as the FBI engaged in “red-baiting.”

COINTELPRO was designed, by its own terms, to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize” political and activist groups. In the 1960s, the FBI targeted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a program called “Racial Matters.” King’s campaign to register African-American voters in the South raised the hackles of the FBI, which disingenuously claimed King’s organization was being infiltrated by communists. In fact, the FBI was really concerned that King’s civil rights campaign “represented a clear threat to the established order of the U.S.” The FBI went after King with a vengeance, wiretapping his telephones and securing very personal information which it used to try to drive him to divorce and suicide, and to discredit him.

In response to the excesses of the FBI, in 1972, a congressional committee chaired by Senator Frank Church conducted an investigation of activities of the domestic intelligence agencies in the ’50s, ’60s and early 70s. After documenting the abuses of COINTELPRO, Congress established guidelines to regulate FBI activity in foreign and domestic intelligence-gathering. Those guidelines required the FBI to have a valid factual basis for opening an investigation, i.e., “information or an allegation whose responsible handling required some further scrutiny.” They also mandated the investigations be “performed with care to protect individual rights and to insure that investigations are confined to matters of legitimate law enforcement interest.” Before opening an investigation, the guidelines required that “the danger to privacy and free expression posed by an investigation” be considered.

But even with those protective guidelines, the FBI continued to spy on law-abiding people in the United States. In the 1980s, it conducted intensive surveillance of CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador, which was formed to counter the United States government’s support for the brutal Salvadoran dictatorship.

The National Lawyers Guild, formed in 1937 as an alternative to the American Bar Association which had excluded non-whites, filed a lawsuit against the FBI for unlawful surveillance of the Guild over many decades. Many thousands of pages of documents gained through discovery revealed that the FBI put agents in Guild meetings, wiretapped lawyers’ offices and homes, and built dossiers on those perceived as critical of governmental policies. In 1989, the FBI settled the lawsuit, admitting it had tried to disrupt the Guild even though it had no proof the Guild was a subversive or communist organization.

An additional result of the Church Committee’s investigation was the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act in 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal. The FOIA, one of our most significant democratic reforms, enables ordinary citizens to hold the government accountable for its activities, by obtaining public documents and records. Through FOIA requests, journalists, newspapers, historians and public watchdog groups have exposed governmental malfeasance.

Many recent revelations of official misconduct have resulted from FOIA requests. The Charlotte Observer showed that the electric utility, Duke Power Co., engaged in a creative accounting scheme to relieve it from charging lower rates to its 2 million customers in North Carolina and South Carolina. The Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based non-profit organization, published lists of recipients of billions of dollars in farm subsidies, which revealed that federal monies earmarked for small family farmers had instead lined the pockets of the huge agricultural corporations. And USA Today publicized widespread misconduct by higher-ups in the National Guard, including inflation of troop strength, misuse of taxpayer funds, sexual harassment and the theft of life-insurance payments that should have gone to widows and children of guardsmen.

In fact, as the result of three lawsuits brought under the FOIA, and a 17-year legal battle, the San Francisco Chronicle has just obtained thousands of pages of previously secret FBI records detailing surveillance of the University of California. According to those documents, the FBI unlawfully colluded with the head of the CIA to harass faculty, students and members of the Board of Regents. Several federal judges found the FBI had engaged in the unlawful investigation of student protestors, interfered with academic freedom and intruded into internal university affairs. J. Edgar Hoover ordered his agents to turn up derogatory information on UC’s faculty members and top administrators. A 60-page report resulted, which said that 72 students, faculty members and employees were listed in the FBI’s “Security Index,” a secret list of people considered by the FBI as potential threats to national security; they would be detained with no warrants during a crisis.

The Freedom of Information Act should provide a vehicle to determine whether the FBI abuses its new powers by violating civil liberties. But in the post- traumatic stress following September 11, Ashcroft directed his deputies not to honor FOIA requests, effectively preempting the ability of the public to hold the FBI accountable for its actions.

Ashcroft and Mueller justify the new guidelines as a way to prevent additional terrorist attacks like those of September 11. The guidelines themselves, however, belie that claim. All of the changes relate to the FBI’s domestic guidelines, not the international terrorism guidelines under which Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are investigated. The FBI is subject to two sets of guidelines. The distinction between them has nothing to do with where the investigation is conducted; both relate to investigations in the United States. The difference is in the nature of the organization being investigated. The foreign guidelines govern investigations inside the United States of foreign powers and international terrorism organizations such as Al Qaeda, which carry out activities in the U.S. The domestic guidelines govern investigations of organized crime and “terrorist” groups that operate and originate in the U.S.

Section 802 of the USA PATRIOT Act, which was rammed through Congress shortly after September 11, creates a new crime of “domestic terrorism.” This section could target civil disobedience by animal rights activists who raid mink farms and set the animals free. Congressman Scott McInnis (R-Co), who convened congressional hearings on domestic “terrorist” organizations, labeled Earth Liberation Front, which was responsible for major property damage in Colorado, as a major domestic terrorist organization. Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash) suggested treating Earth Liberation Front like the Taliban: “I propose that we use the model that has worked so well in Afghanistan … Give them no rest and no quarter.” These politicians draw no distinction between human rights and property interests.

The same day the new FBI guidelines were revealed, Mueller outlined the “FBI Priorities” as follows: protect the U.S. from terrorist attack; protect the U.S. against foreign intelligence operations and espionage; protect the U.S. against cyber-based attacks and high-technology crimes; combat public corruption at all levels; protect civil rights; combat transnational and national criminal enterprises; combat major white-collar crime; combat significant violent crime; support federal, state, local and international partners; and upgrade technology to successfully perform the FBI’s mission. But although none of these priorities identify domestic activities as threats to America, the expanded powers of the FBI target domestic, not international, “terrorism.”

We cannot have confidence that relaxing limitations on the FBI’s spying activities will make us any safer, or make the FBI more competent. Giving the FBI more power would not have prevented its specious prosecution of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, its failure to catch spy Robert Philip Hansen, or its failure to “connect the dots” leading to September 11. It will only succeed in making it easier for the FBI to monitor the activities of law-abiding people. The new FBI will pose a threat, not to the terrorists, but to the civil liberties of law-abiding people.