Spying on Big Brother

Now you can find out if you're being surveilled by the FBI or the NYPD.

American Civil Liberties Union documents show . . . the Pentagon . . . keeping tabs on nonviolent protestors . . . including Quakers and student groups . . . by collecting information and storing it in a military antiterrorism database.ACLU, October 12, 2006

As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government. —Serious humorist Dave Barry, Knight Ridder syndicate, New York—Daily News, December 12, 2004

The New York Civil Liberties Union . . . is starting a campaign to teach "radical" activist groups how to obtain their own government surveillance files from the FBI, Pentagon, and New York City Police Department.The New York Sun, November 14, 2006


During the 1950s and 1960s, I often reported in the Voice about the FBI's omnipresent, omnivorous surveillance of, and infiltration into, entirely lawful groups during J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program)—its searching for "subversives" of many creeds and colors. (Also involved, as was eventually disclosed, were the CIA and the secret, warrantless National Security Agency.)

When later I got my own FBI files through the Freedom of Information Act, there were many pages—including Voice columns, protest petitions I'd signed, and even the names of the ghettos in the Russian cities from which my late parents emigrated to the United States. There was also a report that I'd attended a meeting of "radicals" in North Africa. (I've never been in any part of Africa.)

Since 9-11, the ceaseless, accelerating extent of government surveillance of many millions of us exceeds anything the malign J. Edgar Hoover could have yearningly imagined. But George Orwell, in 1984, had a sense of what was coming:

"How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate, they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to."

As one example of current American advances in what the continually watched British call "dataveillance," David Sobel of the Electronic Freedom Foundation speaks of the "largest collection of personal data ever amassed by the federal government"–including "240 million airline passenger records."

If you would like to find out whether an organization to which you belong, or which you have supported, is being targeted, the New York Civil Liberties Union—much to its credit as an unintimidated bulwark of the First and Fourth Amendments—has begun a "Spy Files Campaign."

As NYCLU field director and legislative counsel Udi Ofer explains, this New York affiliate of the national ACLU is involved in educating activist groups on "their right to obtain information about their government surveillance files by filing federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and New York Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests."

Accordingly, it will be possible for many of us to spy on such agents of Big Brother—and their interconnected databases—as the FBI, the Pentagon, and the New York City Police Department (and its technologically updated version of its former notorious "Red Squad," whose eager activities I used to chronicle in the Voice, and vice versa).

As the NYCLU reported on March 16, the program has filed Freedom of Information requests on behalf of itself and 14 New York political and religious organizations that the NYCLU has reason to believe are "of interest" to government spies. These groups and individuals include:

September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows; the American Friends Service Committee, upper New York State Area Office (the FBI has long been deeply suspicious of Quakers); Brooklyn Parents for Peace; the Buffalo War Resisters League; antiwar activist Leslie Cagan; the Council on American-Islamic Relations, New York Chapter; the Council of Peoples Organization; Metro Justice (Rochester); the New York Immigration Coalition; Peace Action of Central New York; People for the American Way—NY; People for Animal Rights (Syracuse); Veterans for Peace, Chapter 128; and the Western New York Peace Center (Buffalo)—and the NYCLU itself.

In announcing its First Amendment offensive against what columnist Dave Barry has called "our dangerous common enemy" (I wonder how many government databases he's in now), the NYCLU added that it filed its requests "on the same day that the ACLU of Pennsylvania released a series of documents that affiliate received in response to its own similar FOIA requests. These documents show that the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force (connecting FBI, state and local police agencies) is spying on the pacifist Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh." Those pacifists practice "moral jujitsu."

During the past five years, the national ACLU's Freedom of Information requests resulted in thousands of pages of invaluable disclosures of government violations of the First and Fourth Amendments, our own War Crimes Act, international treaties, and much more—pages now evidence in lawsuits by the ACLU and other organizations.

As Ofer says, you can get a copy of the NYCLU's tool kit for individuals and organizations interested in filing Freedom of Information requests by contacting him at the New York Civil Liberties Union, 125 Broad Street, New York, NY 10004 (phone: 212-607-3300, ext. 342; web: nyclu.org). Also, for details and legal papers regarding the FOIA requests filed by ACLU affiliates around the country, including a list of clients, go to aclu.org/spyfiles.)

Reacting to the NYCLU's campaign, J. Michael Barrett, a Homeland Security fellow at the Manhattan Institute, told The New York Sun: "Anything that has the potential to impede legitimate law enforcement activities has the potential to help terrorists."

The thousands of pages the national ACLU has obtained from Freedom of Information Act requests have unmistakably shown not only the illegitimacy of so much government surveillance but the government's unlimited contempt for our Bill of Rights. On September 12, 2001, President George W. Bush falsely assured us (emphasis added):

"We will not allow this enemy to win the war by changing our way of life or restricting our freedoms."

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