Expanded FBI spying poses threat to liberty

February 01, 2002|By Susan Goering

AS A result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft is reportedly now seeking to free the FBI to spy on domestic groups. His plan would relax restrictions on the FBI, giving it greater freedom to spy on religious and political organizations.

Apparently, Mr. Ashcroft is not a student of history, because if he were, he would recall the horrific revelations of the Senate's Church Committee in the 1970s, which found that the FBI had engaged in widespread unchecked domestic surveillance. It monitored political demonstrations, infiltrated civil rights groups, conducted illegal break-ins and warrantless wiretaps of anti-war groups, sent anonymous poison pen letters intended to break up marriages of political group leaders and targeted, among others, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We now know that the campaign against King was predicated on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's personal dislike of him and had no bona fide investigative purpose. The FBI's enmity toward King and his political views led it to bug his telephones and hotel rooms, obtaining highly personal information that it then tried to use to break up his marriage and to encourage him to commit suicide. The FBI tried to discredit King in the eyes of the White House, Congress, the religious community and even foreign governments.

The documented excesses of the FBI in targeting individuals and groups because of their beliefs led to congressional hearings, and, eventually, to guidelines adopted in 1976 by then-Attorney General Edward Levi.

These guidelines regulate FBI activity in both foreign and domestic intelligence-gathering and make it clear that constitutionally protected advocacy of unpopular ideas or political dissent alone cannot serve as the basis for an investigation.

For example, they prevent the FBI from sending undercover agents to investigate groups that gather at places such as mosques or churches unless investigators first have evidence leading them to believe that someone in the group has or plans to break the law.

Lest anyone argue that we are now in extraordinary times that demand increased security, it's important to note that existing guidelines already give the FBI plenty of authority to protect us. The agency can open a formal investigation with only a "reasonable indication" that a crime is occurring or is about to occur - substantially lower than the usual "probable cause." Nor do the current guidelines tie the FBI's hands. The agency can initiate investigations in advance of criminal conduct and investigate based on advocacy of violence.

There are at least three reasons that Mr. Ashcroft should not relax the FBI domestic spying guidelines.

First, we know from history what happens when the FBI is given too long a leash - it targets individuals and groups based on their advocacy and association rather than on legitimate law enforcement concerns. The guidelines were adopted to shorten that leash and to keep investigations properly focused.

Second, political spying diverts resources that could be better spent fighting real crime. Thousands of groups espouse views with which the government disagrees, but a relatively small number ever engage in criminal activity. Every FBI agent spending his or her days noting license plate numbers at a political rally or taping and transcribing political speeches is an agent not engaged in preventing or solving crime.

Finally, political spying is likely to exacerbate violence rather than stop it. Justice Louis Brandeis recognized long ago that the First Amendment acts as a safety valve. If those marginalized in our society are free to express their views and engage in political activity, they are less likely to resort to violence. Political spying plays into the hands of many anti-government extremist groups, driving them underground and encouraging the fanatics among them to respond with violence.

The necessary and legitimate war against terrorism should not be used to permanently expand unchecked government power or to diminish the Bill of Rights. An immutable characteristic of our nation is freedom. If we allow the war on terrorism to take away our freedoms, we surrender what it is to be an American.

Susan Goering is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

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