FBI Knocking at Your Door
In the April 1, 1971, Village Voice ("Investigating the FBI"), I wrote of having received copies of files on private citizens that had been stolen from the Media, Pennsylvania, office of the FBI. So far as I know, the identities of those who "liberated" these documents have never been discovered by the FBI. There were no names or other clues on the papers I received.
There was, however, a statement of purpose by the people who, earlier that year, had broken into the FBI office. They called themselves "The Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI" and said: "We believe that citizens have the right to scrutinize and control their own government...The FBI has betrayed its democratic trust, and we wish to present evidence for this claim to the open and public judgment of our fellow citizens."
I was not the only recipient of these files in 1971. Although Attorney General John Mitchell, on March 23, urgently asked the press not to publish any of these purloined documents, the next day the Washington Post printed a front-page story on the Media, Pennsylvania, operation.
The Washington Post said it was running the substance of the stolen files "in the public interest...We believe the American public...needs to think long and hard about whether internal security rests essentially upon official surveillance and the suppression of dissent or upon the traditional freedom of every citizen to speak his mind on any subject, whether others consider what he says wise or foolish, patriotic or subversive."
Having read all the files, and there were many, I wrote in the Voice that "none of these people are under surveillance because they have broken any laws."
For example, an FBI memorandum said of a college senior under surveillance that she "is known to be an inverterate [sic] Marxist revolutionist, and a type of person that should be watched, as she will probably be very active in revolutionary activities."
However, the files also revealed that an FBI informer had talked to this probably dangerous young woman "and received no indication that she was anything other than the average liberal-minded student that is common" among those being watched by the FBI. Nonetheless, she was to be kept under surveillance to see whether, in time, she might qualify for insertion into the FBI's Security Index.
The FBI was also very interested in a professor who, along with his wife and children, lived in a "house that numerous college students visit frequently"; the same professor had been inviting "controversial speakers" to his prestigious liberal arts college before "clearing with others." That tip came from the college's chief switchboard operator ("conceal identity due to position at the school").
More than 30 years later, after September 11, 2001, the FBI once again encouraged the citizenry to be watchful -- to join the war on terrorism through the Web site of the Internet Fraud Complaint Center (IFCC). As reported in the November 15 Washington Post, the hypertext link near the top of the IFCC's home page (www.ifccfbi.gov) reads: "If you have any information regarding the terrorist attack on September 11, please click here." The tips have been streaming in.
On January 8, the front page of the Christian Science Monitor featured a story by Kris Axtman of its Houston bureau: "Political Dissent Can Bring Federal Agents to Door." Her report showed that even though J. Edgar Hoover -- whose name graces the FBI building -- has departed for the great beyond, the FBI has not lost its zeal.
Indeed, Attorney General John Ashcroft is showing at least as much mettle as Attorney General John Mitchell did when he and Hoover were diligently revising the Constitution. Kris Axtman notes that as the calls mount about various un-Americans, "John Ashcroft's post-September policy is that each tip be looked into."
So it came to pass that, in San Francisco, when 60-year-old retired phone company worker Barry Reingold answered the intercom at his residence, two FBI agents announced they were coming up. Earlier, at the gym where Reingold works out, the talk had been about the dread Osama bin Laden, and one of Reingold's fellow gym members had told the FBI about a suspicious turn the conversation had taken.
As Reingold recalled his part of the dialogue at the gym, he had said of the notorious fugitive, "Yeah, he's horrible and did a horrible thing, but Bush has nothing to be proud of. He is a servant of the big oil companies, and his only interest in the Middle East is oil."
After questioning George W. Bush's critic, the FBI agents appeared to clear Reingold of any likely terrorist predilections; but then, after the door closed, Reingold heard one of the agents say, in the corridor, "But we still need to do a report." Mr. Reingold is now a person under suspicion in the FBI's files.
The Christian Science Monitor also told of A.J. Brown, a student at Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina. Two Secret Service agents and a Raleigh police officer knocked at her door, telling her they had a tip she had "un-American activity" in her apartment. Knowing her Constitutional rights, she found out they didn't have a search warrant and refused to let them in. But she answered their questions for 40 minutes outside her door.
From the doorway, which was open, her vigilant visitors, as reported by Kris Axtman, saw "a poster of George W. Bush holding a noose. It read: 'We hang on your every word.' " The message was a reminder of Texas governor Bush's proud record as the nation's chief executioner. The noose was not around his neck.
Since, under Ashcroft's USA Patriot Act, the various intelligence agencies are encouraged to exchange information with one another, I expect A.J. Brown and the noose in her apartment are now in the files of the FBI and the CIA.
Ashcroft has further expanded the FBI's powers by reviving the disgraced COINTELPRO operation that, from 1957 to 1971, monitored, infiltrated, and disrupted many "suspicious" religious and political groups. After COINTELPRO was denounced by Congress, certain restrictions were placed on such FBI initiatives. Ashcroft has lifted those restrictions. The December 3 Wall Street Journal noted that Justice Department regulations no longer "require agents to show probable cause that a crime was afoot before spying on political or religious organizations." Or individuals.
Before you answer the door, check what's on your walls.
Nat Hentoff is a columnist for the Village Voice, NEA Newspapers Syndicate, Legal Times, and Editor&Publisher. His most recent books are "Living the Bill of Rights" (University of California, 1999) and "The Nat Hentoff Reader" (Da Capo Press, 2001).