FBI Patents Domestic Spying

The ACLU publicly and indignantly blasted President Bush and the FBI after it got documents that showed the FBI was back in the domestic spy business. FBI targets were peace, environmental and animal rights groups. The ACLU should be indignant, but it shouldn't be surprised.

The FBI has always been in the domestic spy business, and the tactics that it uses against today's activists are no different than those it used to hammer radicals in years past. During the 1960s, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover kicked into high gear the supersecret and blatantly illegal counterintelligence COINTELPRO program that targeted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and black and anti-war protest leaders, as well as thousands of innocent Americans. 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 to go after them. Despite FBI protests that it only targeted those that are foreign spies, terrorists, or individuals suspected of criminal acts, in nearly all cases the groups and individuals under the FBI lens did not fit that bill.

With the death of Hoover in 1972 and congressional disclosure of the illegal program, the Justice Department scrambled fast to staunch the public and congressional outcry to rein in the FBI. It publicly assured Congress that COINTELPRO was a thing of the past, and that it had implemented ironclad control over FBI activities. That never happened.

During the 1980s, the FBI waged a five-year covert spy campaign against dozens of religious and pacifist groups and leaders that 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 has never made complete disclosure to Congress the full extent of its supersecret domestic operations. The documents the ACLU got, which showed the current round of FBI domestic spying, are heavily censored. That fuels the deep suspicion that the domestic spy operations the FBI admits to and those in the past are only the tip of the spy iceberg.

Also, the FBI tactics used against these groups are a close replica of the tactics that the FBI routinely used against domestic groups in the 1960s, and that the 1970s guidelines supposedly banned. They include the ransacking of personal records, warrantless eavesdropping of calls, the monitoring of emails and almost certainly electronic and physical surveillance of political dissidents.

With much fanfare, Bush, and then Attorney General John Ashcroft, in 2002 announced that they were scrapping the 1970s guidelines that banned FBI spying on domestic organizations. The FBI quickly swung into even higher gear. FBI officials sent a memo to local police departments before the massive anti-Iraq war protests that year, urging them to keep close tabs on protesters. That is a virtual carbon copy of the FBI's trademark approach to political spying, which is to work closely with local police departments against targeted domestic organizations. The FBI launched search and destroy missions jointly with local police in several cities in 1969 against the Black Panther Party.

Following the big anti-Iraq war demonstrations, peace activists complained that FBI agents infiltrated anti-war meetings in some cities, and that local police fiercely grilled anti-war demonstrators in New York City about their political ties, and that their names wound up on the government's "no fly" list. This is the list that the airlines can use to deny passengers the right to board an airplane.

FBI officials claim that their aim wasn't to harass or intimidate protesters, or chill political dissent, but simply to ferret out violent prone radicals. When the ACLU went public with its documents, the FBI again loudly protested that it was only after terrorists and their supporters. But FBI officials have not offered a shred of proof that these organizations or individuals have broken any laws, let alone aided and abetted terrorists.

The ACLU disclosures of FBI domestic spying don't necessarily mean the FBI will again blatantly and brazenly bend, twist and break the law, ride roughshod over civil liberties and commit the willful acts of violence it did in the past against civil rights and political protesters. They do, however, make it much easier for FBI officials to skirt the law if they so choose when dealing with protest organizations, and they can do it under the guise of waging war against terrorists. The enemies of the state, of course, can be just about anyone and everyone that Bush and FBI officials suspect or finger.

The ACLU disclosures are a dangerous warning that official law breaking can happen again. And that the FBI can and will use the same dubious tactics that it has patented over the years.


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