Police-FBI Roundups Not New

Civil libertarians hailed the recent decision by Portland police officials not to help the FBI indiscriminately grill Middle Eastern immigrants. Police officials in San Francisco and Minneapolis though they did not flatly refuse to aid the FBI hunt still expressed deep unease about the pending round-up.

There's a good reason they should.

The FBI has given no evidence that the more than 5,000 individuals they seek to question have any ties to the September 11 terror attackers, have committed any crimes or are in the country illegally. Attorney-General John Ashcroft has refused to give any assurance that the FBI's new round-up will bag more terrorists. Without that official assurance the at random questioning of Muslim immigrants smacks of racial profiling.

The seed for the government ethnic targeting of Arab-Americans was planted in the 1960s. The ghetto riots that rocked hundreds of American cities triggered the first major escalation in police power. The 1968 Civil Rights Act gave police and federal agencies broader authority to conduct surveillance and wiretaps against groups and individuals considered a threat to national security. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, with the full blessing of President Lyndon Johnson, escalated its illegal, and super-secret counter-intelligence program, popularly known as COINTELPRO, specifically designed to harass, intimidate, and neutralize black militant groups.

In the 1970s, Congressional investigators probing Hoover's spy program marveled at its scope. From 1964 to 1969, the FBI assembled a small army of more than 7,500 "ghetto informants" (known) and hundreds of FBI agents in a deadly national campaign to name names and compile dossiers on thousands of African-Americans whom it claimed were connected with the Black Muslims, Black Panthers, and civil rights leaders and activists.

The FBI listed the individuals targeted for questioning and surveillance under categories variously called, "Rabble Rouser Index," "Agitator index" and the "Security Index." Individuals wound up on the FBI's security watch list if they attended a political meeting, donated a few dollars to a political group, or were rumored to be sympathetic toward political causes.

What made the Portland police's refusal to aid and abet in the FBI's current political hunt astounding, though, is that police officials have routinely cooperated in past FBI stop, search and question campaigns against those whom they tag as racial or political subversives. A provision in the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act made it even easier for the FBI to rope local police departments in on its political hunts. Congress kicked out $5 million to expand the police training programs at the FBI National Academy.

In 1969, the number of police in the program leaped from 200 to 2000. In the decades since then, police officials thousands of local and foreign police officials have received training in riot control, interrogation and intelligence gathering procedures the FBI academy.

During those years police departments in Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, Detroit, and New York either established, or expanded, their "red squads" in cooperation with, or apart from the FBI, to collect information on thousands of individuals suspected of being sympathizers or supporters of militant political organizations. In 1970, Seattle police blew the cover on FBI-police political hunts when it publicly balked at aiding the FBI in a planned raid on local Panther offices. The FBI had produced no tangible proof that the group had committed any crimes.

Police officials in other cities will soon have to decide whether they will aid and abet the FBI in its hunt or follow the example of Portland police.

Justice Dept. officials say they want to interview more than 600 persons all of Middle Eastern descent throughout the Midwest. They have notified them by letter that they will be questioned. The FBI has formally requested that a local police officer be present during the questioning.

But what if some of those targeted for questioning refuse to cooperate? Though they are not accused of committing any crimes, or having any links with the terror attackers, will FBI agents haul them in for questioning? And will police officials help them? If so, will the FBI detain them as they have hundreds of others with no charges against them and with only the shaky assurance from Ashcroft that they have access to attorneys, and are allowed visits from family and friends? The search to ferret out those who belong to what Ashcroft calls "hidden terror cells" will escalate. Almost certainly hundreds more names will be added to the FBI's secret list of those it wants to question. And almost all of them will be Muslims.

The Portland police sent a strong message that they will not engage in the FBI's political fishing expedition, which tramples on the civil rights of individuals without evidence of wrongdoing. Other police departments would do well to join them.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion Web site: www.thehutchinsonreport.com

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