Remembering Why We Are Americans


A true patriot would keep the attention of his fellow citizens awake to their grievances, and not allow them to rest till the causes of their just complaints are removed. —Sam Adams of the Sons of Liberty and Committees of Correspondence, Boston, Massachusetts, 1771

Right after John Ashcroft revived the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover (its headquarters, after all, is named after him), The Bill of Rights defense committee of Northampton, Massachusetts (Voice, July 2), reacted by recalling Hoover’s disgraced COINTELPRO program, which serially abused the Bill of Rights:

“In the 1970s, the Senate banned COINTELPRO because of its unconstitutional character. The FBI had invaded privacy in order to disrupt lawful political activity. . . . By banning COINTELPRO, Congress declared illegal what was obviously unconstitutional. It was a major step forward for democracy in this country.

“Now Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Bush . . . have unilaterally placed in jeopardy the right to organize peacefully and legally, [putting] our communities at risk. Who is sitting next to us at city council, church, peace, or ACLU meetings? And what will that mean to the outcome of that meeting or to our individual security?”

These citizens of Northampton are well aware of what constitutional lawyer David Cole wrote in the valuable June 3 “Striking Back” issue of The Nation:

“National-security types often assure us that wartime diminutions of civil liberties are only temporary. But this is likely to be a permanent war. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said that the war will not be over—and the prisoners on Guantanamo will not be released—until there are no terrorist organizations of potentially global reach left in the world.

“Given that modern technology gives practically everyone ‘global reach,’ that day will never come. . . . The only certainty is that we will see further erosions of our privacy, our freedoms, and our principles.”

Also in that June 3 issue of The Nation is an ominous and revealing piece by Robert Dreyfuss (“The Cops Are Watching You”), which details the increasing interconnections among the FBI, state and local intelligence units, and anti-terrorism squads. For one example, there is veteran FBI agent Mike Clemens, now stationed in Baltimore, who assembles and directs Maryland’s FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). To determine which groups under surveillance might be involved in violent activity, Clemens told Dreyfuss, a wide spectrum of organizations has to be monitored.

Therefore, writes Dreyfuss, “the FBI—working in conjunction with state and local police—often gathers a significant amount of information on groups that end up having no proclivity toward violence, Clemens says. . . . ‘We identify a group, develop sources inside it. Maybe we make 15 contacts or more over a period of six months, and if they are all negative, we just leave them alone.’ ” This infiltration by multiple government forces is going on nationally.

And are the names of group members, along with their other affiliations, eventually expunged from FBI files? That’s as likely as George W. Bush doing penance for all those people he executed while governor of Texas.

Keep in mind that this invasive FBI monitoring of entirely lawful groups was going on—under the direction of John Ashcroft—for months before he disclosed in May that, under the “new” guidelines, he was bringing back COINTELPRO (though he never used that disgraced name).

In his Nation article, Robert Dreyfuss also reports that in March, the ACLU in Denver found out that since 1999, the police there “have maintained intelligence dossiers on 3200 people in 208 organizations, from globalization protesters to the [Quaker] American Friends Service Committee, and from Amnesty International to the Chiapas Coalition and the American Indian Movement. ‘Individuals who are not even suspected of a crime and organizations that don’t have a criminal history are labeled criminal extremists,’ says Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado.”

New York City’s police commissioner, Ray Kelly, has added counter-terrorism specialists to his intelligence division, but do we have any idea who will qualify for inclusion in the NYPD dossiers of suspected domestic “terrorists” that will be exchanged with federal intelligence units? This is something the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the New York Civil Rights Coalition, and other groups operating in the spirit of Sam Adams ought to look into. So should teams of investigative reporters. Look at how much Robert Dreyfuss found out in Maryland.

In From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776, historian Pauline Maier quotes a letter from Sam Adams emphasizing that “the colonists must henceforth depend primarily upon themselves for the defense of their liberties.”

In another passage, published in the January 21, 1771, Boston Gazette, and just as crucial and pertinent under Bush and Ashcroft as it was under King George III, Sam Adams wrote, “Our ship is in the hands of pilots who . . . are steering directly under full sail to a rock. The whole crew may see [this course to violate our liberties] in full view if they look the right way.”

There is much more of value to our present condition in Pauline Maier’s From Resistance to Revolution. Fortunately, this account of how American liberties were won has recently been restored to print by W.W. Norton & Co. I recommend the book highly to the Bill of Rights defense committees rising around the country, to ACLU affiliates, and to the growing number of increasingly concerned citizens—from right to left and in the middle.

The book’s epigraph is from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: “The Revolution of the United States was the result of a mature and reflecting preference for freedom. . . . It contracted no alliance with the turbulent passions of anarchy, but its course was marked, on the contrary, by a love of order and law.”

The Bush administration and the Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress keep intoning the mantra “the rule of law,” while the FBI and CIA are amassing more information on more of us—traducing the law and using more invasive technology than ever before.

As David Cole says, “Popular resistance is critical.”