Unleashing the FBI

'There Would Be No Place to Hide'

The [new] guidelines emphasize that the FBI must not be deprived of using all lawful authorized methods in investigations, consistent with the Constitution.Attorney General John Ashcroft, New York Daily News, May 31

In reality, Mr. Ashcroft, in the name of fighting terrorism, [is] giving FBI agents nearly unbridled power to poke into the affairs of anyone in the United States, even where there is no evidence of illegal activity. —Editorial, New York Times, May 31


As usual, television—broadcast and cable—got it wrong. The thrust of what they call reporting on the reorganization of the FBI focused on the 900 or so new agents, the primacy of intelligence gathering over law enforcement, and the presence of CIA supervisors within the bosom of the FBI. (It used to be illegal for the CIA to spy on Americans within our borders.)

But the poisonous core of this reorganization is its return to the time of J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO, the counter-intelligence operation—pervasively active from 1956 to 1971—that so disgraced the Bureau that it was forced to adopt new guidelines to prevent such wholesale subversion of the Bill of Rights ever again.

Under COINTELPRO, the FBI monitored, infiltrated, manipulated, and secretly fomented divisions within civil rights, anti-war, black, and other entirely lawful organizations who were using the First Amendment to disagree with government policies.

These uninhibited FBI abuses of the Bill of Rights were exposed by some journalists, but most effectively by the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities. Its chairman, Frank Church of Idaho, was a true believer in the constitutional guarantees of individual liberties against the government—which is why we had a Revolution.

In 1975, Church told the nation, and J. Edgar Hoover, that COINTELPRO had been "a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association." And Church pledged: "The American people need to be reassured that never again will an agency of the government be permitted to conduct a secret war against those citizens it considers a threat to the established order."

Frank Church, however, could not have foreseen George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, FBI director Robert Mueller, and the cowardly leadership, Republican and Democratic, of Congress. (Notable exceptions are John Conyers of Michigan, and Russell Feingold and James Sensenbrenner, both of Wisconsin.)

The guidelines for FBI investigations imposed after COINTELPRO ordered that agents could not troll for information in churches, libraries, or political meetings of Americans without some reasonable leads that someone, somehow, was doing or planning something illegal.

Without even a gesture of consultation with Congress, Ashcroft unilaterally has thrown away those guidelines.

From now on, covert FBI agents can mingle with unsuspecting Americans at churches, mosques, synagogues, meetings of environmentalists, the ACLU, the Gun Owners of America, and Reverend Al Sharpton's presidential campaign headquarters. (He has been resoundingly critical of the cutting back of the Bill of Rights.) These eavesdroppers do not need any evidence, not even a previous complaint, that anything illegal is going on, or is being contemplated.

Laura Murphy, the director of the ACLU's Washington office, puts the danger to us all plainly: "The FBI is now telling the American people, 'You no longer have to do anything unlawful in order to get that knock on the door.' "

During COINTELPRO, I got that knock on the door because I, among other journalists, had been publishing COINTELPRO reports that had been stolen from an FBI office. You might keep a pocket edition of the Constitution handy to present to the FBI agents—like a cross in front of Dracula.

The attorney general is repeatedly reassuring the American people that there's nothing to worry about. FBI agents, he says, can now go into any public place "under the same terms and conditions of any member of the public."

Really? While the rest of us do not expect privacy in a public place, we also do not expect to be spied upon and put into an FBI dossier because the organizers of the meeting are critical of the government, even of Ashcroft. We do not expect the casually dressed person next to us to be a secret agent of Ashcroft.

Former U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter, best known for his prosecution of the Abner Louima case, said in the May 31 New York Times that Ashcroft's discarding of the post-COINTELPRO guidelines means that now "law enforcement authorities could conduct investigations that [have] a chilling effect on entirely appropriate lawful expressions of political beliefs, the free exercise of religion, and the freedom of assembly."

So where are the cries of outrage from Democratic leaders Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt? How do you tell them apart from the Republicans on civil liberties?

Back in 1975, Frank Church issued a warning that is far more pertinent now than it was then. He was speaking of how the government's intelligence capabilities—aimed at "potential" enemies, as well as disloyal Americans—could "at any time" be "turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left—such is the capacity to monitor everything, telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide . . .

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