Criminal Dissent

Human Rights

In the early 1970s, Guy Goodwin, a special prosecutor working for U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell�who was soon to become a star player in President Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal�convened grand juries across the country to target radicals, anti-war activists, unions and others. Goodwin, characterized by the Center for Constitutional Rights as the "grand inquisitor of the politically motivated grand jury," was a man on a mission.

Unlike 30 years ago, the convening of grand juries by John Ashcroft's Department of Justice is only one weapon in the administration's anti-dissent arsenal, Michael Avery, president of the National Lawyers Guild, told in a telephone interview.

"This administration is trying to criminalize dissent, characterize protesters as terrorists and trying to intimidate and marginalize those opposed to its policies," Avery said. The administration has opened the floodgates for all kinds of investigative activities, and now "police agencies across the country are actively engaged in spying and compiling dossiers on citizens exercising their constitutional rights."

In early February, a federal judge in Iowa ordered officials at Drake University to turn over records about an anti-war forum held on its Des Moines campus in mid-November. Subpoenas were also served on four activists who attended the forum, and the university's chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. The subpoena, which sought records identifying the officers of the Drake chapter in November 2003; the current location of any local offices; as well as agendas, "has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with intimidating lawful protestors and suppressing First Amendment freedom of expression and association," Heidi Boghosian, Executive Director of the Guild, pointed out in a Guild press release issued Feb. 6.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Longstaff also issued an order prohibiting Drake employees from talking about the university's subpoena. Mark Smith, a lobbyist for the Washington-based American Association of University Professors, told the Associated Press that he was not familiar with any other similar situation where a U.S. university's records were subpoenaed. The case, he pointed out, has echoes of the "red squads" of the 1950s and campus clampdowns on Vietnam War protesters.

Within days of the Iowa grand jury story receiving national headlines, the Justice Department withdrew the subpoenas. Bruce Nestor, a Minneapolis attorney and past president of NLG who worked on the case, told that it was the "tremendous response from across the political spectrum condemning the use of the grand jury," that got the subpoenas quashed.

"In the two years since 9/11, we have heard one refrain from the Justice Department every time the executive branch seeks to arrogate more power to itself: 'trust us, we're the government,'" Benjamin Stone, executive director of the Iowa ACLU, pointed out. "But, if it is going to be issuing secretive slapdash subpoenas and then rescinding them to save face, how can we trust that more expansive surveillance and investigative powers will be used properly?"

"It's really hard to tell what this means in a broader or policy sense for the Department of Justice," Nestor said. "Clearly the FBI memo reported by The New York Times in October, directed the joint terrorism task forces to compile info about political protesters. The actions of the U.S. attorney's office in Iowa appear to be consistent with the directive in that memo."

"Whether that means that the Department of Justice intends to expand the use of the grand jury to investigate political protest movements is unclear. In this instance they clearly used the grand jury fore that purpose."

Maybe the convening of the grand jury was merely a trial balloon sent up by the DOJ. Perhaps it was the actions of an overwhelmed U.S. attorney in Iowa. Whatever the reason for the subpoenas, Nestor sees it as part of "a pattern of events taking place across the country."

During the past year, police agencies across the country have not only been gathering information, but have used strong-armed tactics against peaceful political demonstrators. In early April, acting on warnings from the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center, the Oakland, Calif. police department indiscriminately fired wooden slugs at and injured several of non-violent anti-war protesters�and several non-protesting port workers as well�demonstrating at the Port of Oakland.

"You can make an easy kind of a link that, if you have a protest group protesting a war where the cause that's being fought against is international terrorism, you might have terrorism at that [protest]," CATIC spokesperson Mike Van Winkle said. "You can almost argue that a protest against that is a terrorist act."

In Atlanta, the city's police department "routinely places under surveillance anti-war protesters and others exercising their free-speech rights to demonstrate," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. And in Los Angeles, the police department maintains files on anti-war protesters it deems capable of "a significant disruption of the public order." In Miami, the sight of the recent police riot during the November demonstrations against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, "police routinely videotape demonstrators and infiltrate rallies with plainclothes officers," Detective Joey Giordano of the Miami-Dade Police Department, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Last year, during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Paul Weyrich, widely recognized as one of the "founding fathers" of the Christian right, suggested that either Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge or Congress launch a full-scale investigation behind the funding sources of what he termed the "neo-Communist" groups organizing the anti-war movement.

While no full-blown congressionally sanctioned investigation of the peace movement has been initiated, local police departments in cooperation with regional FBI offices have taken it on their own to establish anti-war investigative units.

"This administration is using all sorts of tactics to marginalize dissenters," the NLG's Avery pointed out. "They've used pre-emptive strikes, police violence, and have resorted to penning off demonstrators in so-called free speech zones, so that when the president travels around the country people can't get within several blocks of him." As this time, Avery said he wasn't aware of other cases involving the convening of grand juries to go after dissenters.

In what may be a sign of things to come, however, the ACLU pointed out in a press release dated Feb. 10 that "the Justice Department's decision to quash the [Iowa] subpoenas comes on the heels of reports... that U.S. Army Intelligence contacted organizers of a seminar at the University of Texas Law School at Austin on Sexism and Islam."

Local NLG members were asked by law enforcement to provide a list of conference attendees because persons under investigation had been present. The NLG is concerned that the University of Texas could be next in line for a Justice Department fishing expedition. In light of recent events at Drake, they have every right to be wary.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime political observer and columnist.

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