Trust Bush to Protect Civil Liberties?

Human Rights

When the Center for Public Integrity blew the whistle on yet more proposals by the Bush administration to gut civil liberties in its anti-terrorism war, the administration and the Justice Department feigned ignorance. A Justice Dept. official claimed that the proposals were just ideas tossed around to better enhance information sharing.

But the proposals that the Center leaked were anything but random, harmless ideas for swapping information between government agencies. They would radically revise the 2001 anti-terrorism Patriot Act to give even more spy power to the FBI and local law enforcement agencies, permit secret arrests, eliminate some aspects of judicial oversight, establish a DNA data base on anyone suspected of engaging in terrorism, and snatch citizenship from anyone who belongs to or supports a "disfavored political group."

The Justice Department and the FBI would have the say-so over who and what those groups are. The draconian proposals come fast on the heels of FBI director, William Mueller�s order to inventory all mosques and identify all Muslims in the country. Despite FBI denials that this is just a routine measure to determine the number of terrorism investigations that local offices might initiate, this gives the FBI unbridled power to determine who and what groups and individuals it can target.

Though the new proposals would further hammer Constitutional protections, Attorney General John Ashcroft and President Bush continue to publicly pledge that they will not misuse 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 misdeed 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 still struggling to find their voice, Republicans in tight control of Congress, much of the mainstream press fawning over Bush foreign policy, and a looming Iraq war, it�s no stretch to think that the new proposals could quickly be slipped into law with only the barest murmur of opposition from Congressional Democrats. So what it means is that we are forced to accept Bush and Ashcroft�s promise that they will not trample on civil rights and liberties or launch new political witch hunts. Anyone care to bet on that?

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

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