Constant Surveillance: Who's a Target?

I open the PDF file and shudder. The digital copy of a recently declassified internal memo from the FBI's Counterterrorism files has the name of someone I know. It says that Roy Bourgeois "was the founder and leader of this protest since its inception in 1988."

As I read on, my mind races to events where I spoke with Roy, and that may be the subject of memos like the one I'm reading. I show the FBI memo to a friend, who asks, "If they are surveilling Roy, why wouldn't they surveil the rest of us?"

The question is timely, especially with the revelation that the National Security Agency has secretly collected the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, "the largest database ever assembled in the world," according to one source.

I don't answer. I only let him know that Roy Bourgeois is a Catholic priest.

The documents, declassified last week, reveal that the FBI had been watching Roy for several years. I met him back when we were both advocating for a peaceful solution to the war in El Salvador, a terrible war that killed more than 80,000 people, 95 percent of whom were killed by their own military, according to the United Nations Truth Commission Report. Roy was and still is one of the main organizers of the movement to close the Pentagon-sponsored school where most of El Salvador's military officers were trained: the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), better known as the School of the Americas, based in Fort Benning, Georgia. The school's primary mission in the age of national security is to "strengthen the peace and security of the continent."

In the name of "counterterrorism," the U.S. government was watching Father Roy because of his efforts to raise awareness of the state terrorism perpetrated by the U.S.-backed government of El Salvador.

When combined with the revelations of NSA snooping and the controversy over terrorism, immigration and other issues that now fall under the rubric of "national security," last week's release of the FBI documents after a request by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Roy and his organization, makes me nervous.

I too have FBI documents, requested by the ACLU on behalf of organizations I belonged to, like the Central American Refugee Committee, which provided social services and campaigned for peace in El Salvador. These documents, which were released in the late 1980's, revealed that the government was watching those of us who opposed U.S. policy in Central America and worked with immigrants and refugees. We were branded as "potential threats" to U.S. national security for doing pretty much the same thing that those opposed to the current war in Iraq and those marching for better immigration policy are doing today.

Thanks to the expansion of the definitions of "terrorist" and "terrorist sympathizer" under the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 statutes and thanks to the exponential growth of the means that government agencies like the Pentagon can spy on Americans, the number of people who can be spied on has grown dramatically.

The release of the surveillance memos makes me wonder not if but how, the FBI and the Pentagon are spying on those who have joined in the massive immigration marches. Just last week, documents released by the Pentagon revealed that it had been spying on gay and lesbian groups opposed to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Millions marching for immigrants' rights must be among the more than 200 million whose phone records were given to the NSA by AT&T, Bell South and Verizon.

It's especially disturbing to hear these ongoing exposés just before Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who spends most of the $45 billion authorized by Congress for intelligence on the greatest expansion of the Pentagon's foreign and domestic spying capabilities in history, said last Thursday, "I'm not in the intelligence business," in response to questions asked by protester and former CIA agent, Ray McGovern.

Like Father Roy, McGovern has been denouncing U.S. government surveillance, torture and other crimes perpetrated in El Salvador in the 1980's. I can't help but think of the cliché "history really repeats itself," especially, it seems, bad history.

As opposition to the war grows, and as U.S. immigration policy takes the political center stage, I fear bad history is unfolding again, especially as Gen. Michael V. Hayden, another Pentagon official, has been proposed by Pres. Bush to head up the CIA. As head of the NSA, Hayden had primary responsibility for the domestic spying programs that are sounding alarms among many.

I observe as new categories of "threats" requiring potential military action and surveillance are added, and I regret not telling my colleague more about Father Roy. I should have said, "If they can come after priests, they will go after any of us if we oppose wars or support immigrants. All they need is a category and an excuse to call you a 'threat'."


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