Dissent at your own risk

August 17, 2004

J. EDGAR Hoover would be pleased. After decades of being hamstrung by what he would consider overzealous political correctness, his G-men are once again showing a little moxie.

Instead of waiting for protesters to endanger Republican or Democratic convention delegates -- or even facilitate a terrorist plot -- the FBI is taking the battle to the malcontents before they can cause trouble.

According to news accounts, agents are monitoring and interrogating suspected protesters and infiltrating their organizations.

They claim to be simply seeking information that would help them thwart acts of violence, but they are spying upon and harassing innocent citizens.

It's just like the good old days, when Mr. Hoover and the bureau kept dossiers on peaceniks, civil rights leaders, lefties of all stripes and Mr. Hoover's political enemies.

But there is a practical reason that Americans rejected such tactics once they became public in the early 1970s at the end of Mr. Hoover's reign: They can be turned on anyone or any group at any time. There is no way for the most law-abiding American to feel safe from police harassment if protections are allowed to erode for anybody else.

If police have evidence of a crime or evidence of the intention to commit a crime, they should investigate it. But to treat people like criminals because they plan to participate in peaceful protest demonstrations is not investigation, it's intimidation.

The new, or renewed, FBI policy has been gradually developing since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks created a new climate of fear in the nation. That climate meshed nicely with the predilections of Attorney General John Ashcroft, who took the opportunity to win sweeping new investigative powers from Congress and charged that those who "scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty" actually "aid terrorists" and "give ammunition to America's enemies."

Details of the ways in which this policy is being implemented emerge in sporadic glimpses. The New York Times reported in its Monday editions that FBI counterterrorism agents and other federal and local officers began shortly before the Democratic Convention in Boston last month trying to interview people in at least six states about possible violence at the two conventions. Those they sought to question included past protesters and their friends and family members, the Times said.

The American Civil Liberties Union says these are just the latest activities of the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which since at least last year have been monitoring peaceful protests and spying on dissident groups.

Political dissent is not terrorism, however. And even civil disobedience -- such as blocking traffic or joining a sit-in -- does not qualify as the sort of violent criminal behavior that justifies heavy-handed tactics.

In fact, some of the best changes ever made in this country came about through such protests -- overtaxed tea got dumped in Boston Harbor, World War I veterans marched on Washington for benefits, a black woman in Alabama refused to give up her bus seat.

The FBI failed to thwart the 9/11 attacks in part because it did not properly analyze information within its grasp. Surely its resources could be put to much more effective use sharpening those skills instead of bullying law-abiding citizens.

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