When Attorney General John Ashcroft announced in May 2002 that he was lifting restrictions on domestic spying by the FBI - rules that had been put in place in response to the bureau's excesses during the 1960s and '70s - he promised the sweeping new powers would be used only "for the purpose of detecting and preventing terrorism."
Now we know better. A classified FBI intelligence memorandum has recently come to light demonstrating that the FBI is using this new authority to spy on nonviolent antiwar demonstrators. Ashcroft seems to be ushering us back to the bad old days of J. Edgar Hoover, when the FBI made enemies of those who engaged in political dissent and civil disobedience.
As reported by the New York Times, the FBI has been collecting detailed information on the tactics and organization of antiwar protesters and has asked local policing agencies to report any suspicious activities to the FBI's counterterrorism operation.
The agency claims it is only interested in identifying individuals who would engage in violence at demonstrations, but the memorandum describes an array of lawful actions used by peaceful demonstrators. For example, the memorandum instructs local law enforcement about the "innovative strategies" of protesters such as the videotaping of arrests to intimidate police and the use of the Internet to organize and raise funds.
The warnings make it sound as though the simple act of pointing a video camera at police is a provocative act worthy of FBI concern. (Why would it be intimidating to police to have their arrest methods recorded, unless they were engaging in unconstitutional behavior?) The memorandum is evidence of a nationwide campaign designed to collect and disseminate information on protest groups under the guise of fighting terrorism.
The parallels to Hoover's Cointelpro days, when civil rights leaders and anti-Vietnam protesters were put under surveillance and sabotaged, are too great to ignore. Ashcroft has exploited the nation's fears against terrorism - just as Hoover used the communist scare - to justify the elimination of most protections for citizen privacy. FBI agents may once again spy on Americans as they go about their religious worship, civic activities and public activism, without having to make any connection to suspected criminal wrongdoing.
People who block streets, throw rocks or vandalize businesses during a political march are engaging in crimes, to be sure, but they are not terrorists. The extraordinary powers and resources given the FBI to track down terrorists should not be used to suppress free speech.