Snooperintendent

December 08, 2004

OUT ON THE Iowa prairie, Brian Terrell has shaped a determinedly peaceable life. He runs a small, anti-war advocacy group founded by the Catholic Church and supplements his meager salary by growing his own food on the communal farm where he, his wife and two children live.

Even so, Mr. Terrell, 48, was under surveillance last fall and winter by federal authorities purportedly on the lookout for terrorists. His apparent offense: planning a nonviolent protest of the war in Iraq.

John Ashcroft's tenure as attorney general has been rife with examples of insensitivity to civil liberties and other individual freedoms upon which the nation was based. But a particularly egregious and easily correctable example is the policy Mr. Ashcroft applied to spying on his fellow citizens.

As the Senate considers the nomination of Alberto R. Gonzales to become President Bush's second attorney general, a top priority should be to secure his promise to rewrite these surveillance guidelines.

Mr. Ashcroft is well-known for browbeating Congress in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hastily enact the Patriot Act, which stripped away many privacy protections in the cause of thwarting terrorists.

But quite on his own, the attorney general also loosened guidelines for investigating domestic activities in order to lift safeguards adopted by his predecessors during the 1970s. Those were put in place in response to abuses by the FBI and other intelligence agencies that spied on and harassed individuals and groups because of their political views.

Thus peaceniks, environmentalists, animal rights activists and religious organizations are fair game once again for federal snoopers who need not have evidence of a potential crime or even suspicion of something fishy.

Mr. Terrell was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury about a conference -- infiltrated by local sheriff's deputies -- that included tips on how to respond if arrested during a protest demonstration.

Others were spied upon in expectation that they might take part in protests at last summer's national political conventions.

Most of the evidence of this spy work has come anecdotally; the American Civil Liberties Union is now seeking official documentation. Its appears, though, to have been directed not at terrorists plotting violent or criminal acts but at dissidents who disagreed with Bush administration policies.

Granted, political activists sometimes cross the line and plot to make their point through violent means. But police pursuing leads that may foil such plots already had the investigative tools they needed before Mr. Ashcroft dropped the protections intended to prevent wholesale surveillance of those who simply fail to toe the party line.

During his confirmation hearings next month, Mr. Gonzales will have much to answer for in his own record as White House counsel as well as Mr. Ashcroft's policies. But a promise to stop spying on citizens without just cause would be a good start.

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