The Long Term Assault on Civil Liberties in America

Visiting Budapest in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, I had a chance to talk to some Hungarians about their lives during and after the Soviet occupation. I was particularly interested in the secret police. Did they feel safer now that they couldn't be taken away in the middle of the night for something they had said or written? One woman's response was typical. "They would never come for me," she said. "They came for our writers, our intellectuals, but never for me. I was never scared."


Perhaps the average American thought similarly about the USA PATRIOT Act, passed within a month after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Apparently, members of Congress felt that way. The act was over 300 pages long and most did not have time to read it in the rush for passage. They should have. It gives our government the right to secretly investigate individuals and groups if their actions "appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population…." Cutting a fence, throwing a stone, crossing a police barrier in pursuit of civil rights, protecting the environment, or protesting the World Trade Organization would certainly qualify. And only one member of a group needs to engage in this type of action for the whole group to be investigated.


The USA PATRIOT Act largely does away with the need for a search warrant, the process that requires the government to show a judge reasonable cause that there is evidence relevant to a crime. This assault on the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unwarranted search and surveillance, has some startling ramifications.


The FBI can not only search your home or business, but also listen to your phone conversations, monitor your computer and Internet use, and search your medical, financial, library, and academic records. All this without ever letting you know. As an example, librarians were put on notice that it is a violation of law to let any library user know that his/her records have ever been checked. And hundreds of libraries report that records have been checked, although they are forbidden to reveal the specifics. There can be little doubt that homes have also been searched, patient records copied, etc. since passage of this act.


Indefinite imprisonment without charge and without evidence used to be unthinkable. But the USA PATRIOT Act allows this for non-citizens who are members of a designated "terrorist organization." Moreover, the FBI gets to label any group it wants as supporting terrorism. Did you give money to the African National Congress in its fight against apartheid in South Africa? Did you support CISPES, an organization of American citizens trying to change U.S. policy in El Salvador and Central America? If you did, and you are not a citizen, you could join the thousands who have been rounded up, questioned, and held in indefinite detention, without charges and without access to legal representation. Two American citizens have also been imprisoned in this manner, establishing a precedent.


Secret military tribunals have been set up to try immigrants and other foreigners for terrorism, with the death penalty a distinct possibility. Even U.S. citizens who are allowed access to a lawyer may have their conversations monitored if the attorney general "suspects" that terrorist activity is involved.


The Total Information Awareness database, organized as part of the Bush era's Department of Homeland Security, was an ominous step towards a police state. Masterminded by Admiral John Poindexter—criminally convicted in 1990 for lying to Congress, destroying official documents, and obstruction of justice—this database would have collected every bit of information that existed on every citizen in this country. A massive public outcry stopped this program before it was put into place. But since then, the government's surveillance programs have multiplied dramatically, especially under Obama who signed an extension of the PATRIOT Act without any reforms at all. Currently, the Justice Department is trying to get a federal appeals court to overturn a ruling against planting GPS devices without a warrant.


"Big deal," you reply. "The FBI has been doing all this stuff for years. Where have you been?" Well, it has been doing this since 1908 when Congress refused to authorize the FBI (at that time the Bureau of Investigation), explaining that "a system of spying upon and espionage of the people, such as has prevailed in Russia" was unacceptable in a free society. The president then created the FBI while Congress was not in session.


The clearest and most reliable source of FBI history is the Church Committee Report, a Congressional investigation of the Bureau conducted in 1975. According to this report, the FBI was in trouble by the 1920s when agents carried out the Palmer Raids that eventually rounded up 10,000 citizens in what was termed "indiscriminate arrests of innocent with the guilty" as well as "unlawful seizures by federal detectives." The Church Committee also cited reports by legal scholars that "found federal agents guilty of using third-degree tortures, making illegal searches and arrests, using agents provocateurs…."


J. Edgar Hoover joined the Bureau in time to take part in these raids. By the 1950s, Hoover, as head of the FBI, used his investigators to collect information on a range of public figures and had no scruples about using that information to influence Congressional votes or presidential decisions. It was under Hoover that COINTELPRO was born (the acronym for the aptly-named Counter Intelligence Program), a comprehensive system of surveillance that the Church Committee found "had no conceivable rational relationship to either national security or violent activity. The unexpressed major premise of much of COINTELPRO is that the Bureau has a role in maintaining the existing social order and that its efforts should be aimed toward combating those who threaten that order." Combating the Civil Rights movement, the Native American movement, and the anti-Vietnam War movement to be specific. Through this program, the FBI served as thought police in the 1950s and 1960s.


The mindless destruction caused by COINTELPRO is still coming to light. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a particular target. Over several years, the FBI wiretapped King's home and office phones and put bugs in his hotel rooms.


At the same time, it worked to deny him awards and honorary degrees, and even tried to prevent an audience with Pope Paul VI. Hoover was quick to exploit the results of the wiretaps—proof of King's illicit affairs—that he then had his agents mail to King's supporters and to the media. Finally, the FBI mailed copies of bedroom tapes to King himself, along with an anonymous letter suggesting he commit suicide rather than having his wife, family, and the nation know about his marital infidelity.


The FBI vendetta against others was just as brutal. Leonard Peltier sits in a federal prison today, framed for a murder that most historians doubt he committed. The role of the FBI in his extradition from Canada and the withholding of over 12,000 FBI documents from his trial is another low point in the violation of civil liberties. Among the documents withheld was a ballistic test which proved that the fatal bullets could not have come from the gun tied to Peltier at the trial. According to Amnesty International, he is a "political prisoner" who should be "immediately and unconditionally released."


The Church Committee Report was released in 1976. Senator Church told the nation at that time that the FBI's COINTELPRO had been "a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association." He also reassured U.S. citizens "that never again will an agency of the government be permitted to conduct a secret war against those citizens it considers a threat to the established order."


But by 1980, things were back to normal for the FBI, at least according to Frank Varelli, who infiltrated a CISPES office in Dallas for the Bureau that year. In a statement to Congress in 1987, he revealed a complicated pattern of surveillance, theft, and dirty tricks. CISPES (the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) was founded to promote peace in El Salvador. Specifically, it worked to expose U.S. military aid that funded right-wing death squads operating there. Varelli was hired by the FBI as part of an "international terrorism investigation," but his tactics included the familiar cameras and sound equipment in bedrooms, this time as part of an attempt to smear and blackmail the Dallas head of CISPES.


Varelli also provided the El Salvadoran National Guard with lists of U.S. citizens traveling there "who were not friendly to Reagan policies…" Just one year before Varelli supplied these lists, three nuns and one church worker, all U.S. citizens, had been raped and murdered in El Salvador by members of this same National Guard.


The FBI has admitted to launching this investigation from 1981 through 1985, but has refused to reveal on what legal authority it did so. Over 50 CISPES offices were broken into during this period.


In 1990, environmental activists, Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney, were arrested and accused of making and transporting bombs, a charge the FBI knew was false. Historian and writer Howard Zinn's testimony in a successful lawsuit against the FBI explained: "It seems clear that the history of the FBI is consistent with the charges that it sought to discredit and 'neutralize' Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney, and the environmental cause they were working for, by smearing them publicly with sensational false charges of possession of a bomb, and that it did not hesitate to violate their constitutional rights to achieve its ends."


The fact that the average American citizen is unaware of all of this is a testament to the FBI's skill at public relations. Of course, the FBI has done some crime fighting in its history, but even its campaign against the Mafia has been exaggerated in the media. Anti-crime efforts in places like Boston are now being exposed for what they were: the FBI allied themselves with certain crime families to arrest and take the credit for convicting members of other families.


The FBI, as well as similar federal law enforcement agencies, has done a much better job of protecting us from dissent than of protecting us from crime. As for terrorists, in the entire history of the FBI, there were precious few of those caught among the tens of thousands detained, bugged, discredited, falsely charged, and publicly humiliated. Looking at the history of the FBI, is it any wonder that 19 men were able to board 4 domestic airliners and fly them with such deadly accuracy into their targets? They learned to fly at U.S. flight schools while the Bureau was busy tracking down and playing dirty tricks on students protesting corporate "trade" and the World Bank.


Police forces all across this land have followed the lead of the FBI in snooping. The Denver Police Department revealed a 40-year program of gathering and storing information on the usual suspects, such as Sister Antonia Anthony, a 74-year-old nun who taught destitute Indians, and Shirley Whiteside, who, along with her husband, ran a community soup kitchen. These were the types of people labeled "criminal extremists" in the database developed by Orion, a software company with ties to the Pentagon.


When asked how over 3,000 Denver citizens ended up with this label, the police said that it was up to each officer to "use his own judgment" in characterizing people.


On Friday, September 24, 2010, the FBI raided seven homes and an antiwar office. Fourteen activists in Illinois, Minnesota, and Michigan were also handed subpoenas to testify before a federal grand jury. The usual groups were targeted, including: the Twin Cities Anti-War Committee, the Palestine Solidarity Group, the Colombia Action Network, and Students for a Democratic Society. All had been involved in antiwar marches and attended the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.


Tracy Molm was one of the activists targeted in the raid: "I heard a pounding on my door in my apartment. That was pretty bizarre. I opened the door and they shoved their way in saying, 'We are FBI agents and we have a warrant.' I was in my bathrobe and they told me I had to sit on my couch and they were going to search my apartment. They pulled my roommate and a friend out of her room and told them to sit on the couch, too. They took my phone and my computer. They proceeded to go through everything in our apartment. If we wanted to go to the bathroom, an FBI agent had to come with us. We were told we could leave, but couldn't come back…. I was outraged. I never thought in my wildest dreams that this could happen. Everything I have ever done has been around peace and justice issues and particularly U.S. foreign policy."


I have never much liked Benjamin Franklin's famous quote about civil liberties: "Those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." It seemed somewhat elitist, suggesting that some people haven't earned the right to enjoy freedom of expression. Perhaps they have no need for it, like the woman in Budapest saying that the secret police would never come for her. Or maybe Franklin was simply saying he had done his part and the rest was up to us. In many ways, we have failed Franklin and we have failed ourselves.


I like to think that there is still time to win back our basic civil liberties.


Fred Nagel, a veteran, is a filmmaker and political activist. A resident of Rhinebeck, New York, he also hosts a show on Vassar College Radio (