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Ashcroft's control looks like the political witch hunt of yesteryear

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© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002

Attorney General John Ashcroft has loosened the reins on the FBI, easing controls that have served to balance security with liberty for the last 26 years. The FBI is once again free to investigate the political and religious life of Americans without a scintilla of evidence of criminality or terrorism.

How will it use this new/old authority? Not sensibly or sensitively is my guess.

Just glance at its past record:

Most people already know how J. Edgar Hoover hated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but some of the details of how Hoover attempted to discredit the civil rights leader make you shake your head in incredulity.

Though King was not a Communist or a sympathizer, a report distributed by the FBI to high-level government officials titled "Communism and the Negro Movement" focused on King without any substantive evidence. Agents met with representatives of the pope and other church leaders trying to undermine King's support within mainstream religion. His hotel rooms were bugged to catch his infidelities, the tapes then used to try and drive him to suicide. The depths of Hoover's hostility were astounding. When King was named Time "Man of the Year" in 1963, Hoover scrawled on the memorandum informing him of it: "They had to dig deep in the garbage to come up with this one."

While nothing justifies what the FBI did, at least King was a man who commanded a national following. It may be somewhat understandable that the FBI had its eye on him during the tumultuous civil rights era. But what of people of less stature? How did the FBI treat a man like Frank Wilkinson?

In the 1940s, Wilkinson was an advocate of integrated low-income housing projects, where residents of slums were dispersed throughout various middle-class communities. He was also one of the FBI's most watched individuals. His surveillance spanned three decades, generated 132,000 documents -- a pile that reaches seven stories tall -- and cost more than $17-million.

You would think with this kind of file Wilkinson was a 10-most-wanted criminal, that he was plotting to assassinate the president, bomb the Supreme Court or at least kidnap an heiress. No, none of the above. He was just a lefty, interested in racial justice and political freedom. Oh, there was a time Wilkinson spent time in the slammer, but it wasn't for knocking over a liquor store. It was because he refused to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Before and after his release, Wilkinson spent his days speaking out against the constitutional abuses of the Communist witch hunt going on in Congress.

And the FBI spent its days trying to silence him.

Special agents for disruption (there really were such people) were dispatched from field offices around the country to prevent or derail public meetings where Wilkinson was speaking. In Washington, D.C., an agent disguised as a reporter asked people in the audience for their names and addresses and why they were attending the meeting -- scaring many away.

No crimes by Wilkinson were ever recorded. Still, the Los Angeles field office called him a "disruptionist" and suggested he be "tabbed for Detcom," which meant, be put on a list of people who were designated to be detained in the event of a national emergency.

Were there politically motivated crimes committed during those days? Heck, yes. The Weather Underground blew up things, killing people, and the Symbionese Liberation Army assassinated a school superintendent and kidnapped Patty Hearst. But the FBI, with all its freedom to surveil anyone for any reason, wasn't able to prevent these attacks. It was too busy spending time and money tailing peaceable people who had the wrong politics.

As chief legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s, Jerry Berman recalls having gone through 500,000 files looking for any claim by the bureau that it prevented any political crime. "There was never a claim," said Berman. "Despite wide-net surveillance, they didn't prevent any of it. It's just like today. The bureau had files and files and files but no internal google."

He's right. The FBI failed to "connect the dots" on Sept. 11 not because it didn't have enough access to information, but because it didn't analyze the information it had: Too much haystack, not enough needle-finding. It is the same problem that has been vexing the agency for 50-plus years. Yet Ashcroft's new guidelines will only serve to grow the haystack. The result is more information -- connected to even less suspicion. The move makes little sense from a law enforcement perspective unless one's motive isn't just ferreting out terrorists, but also keeping track of what the American people are up to.

We're back to the future with J. Edgar Ashcroft in charge.

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