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When Bush and Ashcroft Promise to Uphold Rights, Beware

After the September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Attorney General John Ashcroft wasted no time in demanding that Congress, President Bush, and the courts bestow unbridled power on him to battle potential domestic terrorism. Congress obliged by passing and allocating billions to enforce the sweeping anti-terrorism Patriot Act.

President Bush then obliged by dumping the old 1970s guidelines that banned FBI spying on domestic organizations. This again gives the FBI carte blanche authority to surveil, and plant agents in churches, mosques, and of course, political groups. It permits FBI agents to ransack the Internet to hunt for potential subversives. They can do all this without having to show probable cause of criminal wronging. This gives the FBI unbridled power to determine whom and what groups and individuals it can target.

Now, the three judge U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review has obliged Ashcroft by dumping a ruling by the intelligence court last May to mildly restrict the Justice Department's surveillance authority. The review court's reversal gives the Justice Department and the FBI new powers to wiretap, track, and prosecute anyone they deem a suspected terrorist. The review court judges, all Reagan appointees to federal appeals courts, were handpicked by Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. In rendering their decision, they ignored findings by the intelligence court of abuses in the issuance of surveillance warrants during the Bush and Clinton administrations.

Still, Ashcroft and Bush publicly and solemnly pledge that they will not use their awesome powers to wage war against political dissenters, or to chill civil liberties. But past presidents, Justice Department and FBI officials said pretty much the same thing during the 1960s and early 1970s. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon claimed that the battle to nail domestic subversives, i.e. Communists, Socialists, black nationalists, Black Panthers and civil rights leaders, most notably Martin Luther King Jr., justified bending, twisting, and ultimately breaking the law and violating civil liberties.

No government agency in those days would dare attempt to compel the FBI to prove it didn't illegally spy, and much of the press routinely accepted the official word that wildly expanded federal police power was aimed solely at nailing domestic subversives. Public skepticism over government misdeeds changed that for a brief time in the mid-1970's. Senate investigators released piles of formerly secret documents that documented FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's super-secret and blatantly illegal counter-intelligence program that targeted dozens of groups and thousands of and individuals the FBI considered politically objectionable. The arsenal of FBI dirty tactics included non-court authorized wiretaps, undercover plants, agent provocateurs, poison pen letters, black bag jobs, and the compiling of secret dossiers.

In nearly all cases, those targeted were not foreign spies, terrorists, or individuals suspected of criminal acts. The results were immediate and devastating. Thousands were expelled from schools, lost jobs, evicted from their homes, and offices, and publicly slandered. Few of these individuals were indicted, convicted or even accused of any crimes.

Hoover gave local FBI offices wide discretion to pick and choose their targets, and the tactics they could use. The revised Bush administration spy guidelines, congressional anti-terrorist legislation, and the intelligence review court's adverse ruling also gives local agents the same wide discretion to determine what groups or individuals they can investigate and what tactics they can use to investigate them. Ashcroft upped the ante even more by immediately establishing and utilizing a computer system to get virtually instant court approval for surveillance.

With the death of Hoover in 1972 and congressional disclosure of the illegal spy program, the Justice Department publicly assured that COINTELPRO was a thing of the past and that it had implemented ironclad control over FBI activities. Yet, during the 1980s, the FBI waged a five-year covert spy campaign against dozens of religious and pacifist groups and leaders who opposed American foreign policy in Central America. In the 1990s it mounted covert campaigns against civil rights, environmental, Native American, anti-nuclear disarmament, and Arab-American groups. The FBI tactics used against these groups were a repeat of the tactics that the 1970s guidelines on domestic spying supposedly banned.

With the Democrats in political disarray, the Republicans in control of Congress, much of the mainstream media press in lockstep with Bush policy, the increasing unwillingness of the courts to rein in Bush administration police power, we are forced to accept Bush's and Ashcroft's promises that they will not trample on civil liberties and witch hunt innocents. But the past shows that when presidents and their officials make that promise, beware.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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