The FBI’S announced intent to surveil anti-war demonstrators and peaceful protests risks a return to a dangerous past.
It has been more than 40 years since the agency unleashed its clandestine Cointelpro program, employing an arsenal of constitutionally suspect practices — telephone wiretaps, videotaping of civil-rights groups the planting of vicious rumors — to disrupt peaceful demonstrations. The covert campaign from 1958 t0 1971 targeted thousands of people, most notably the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil-rights advocates.
It was a despicable, brutal intrusion on civil liberties, designed to stamp out political dissent. Now, there is reason to fear it might happen again.
The FBI says it has gathered considerable information on the tactics, training and organization of antiwar protesters, and asks local law enforcement officials to report any “suspicious” protest activity to its counterterrorism force. In a memo it points to the groups’ use of the Internet to raise money, gas masks to ward off tear gas and what the FBI calls their “training camps” to map protest strategies.
It’s reminiscent of J. Edgar Hoover, who as FBI director used his powers to investigate and harass those he perceived as political threats. Uproar over his Cointelpro led to restrictions on the FBI’s ability to investigate political activities until passage of the 2001 Patriot Act gave agents new authority to spy on political and religious groups without evidence of criminal activity.
But this time, the FBI insists, intelligence-gathering is not aimed at the political speech of law-abiding citizens but rather the “extreme elements” who plan violence and anarchy.
Perhaps. But even without sinister intentions, it’s a bad idea that is bound to deter ordinary citizens who justifiably worry they will end up in FBI files for exercising their right to protest.
While the government must be on guard for terrorism, internal security should not come at the cost of the public’s right to speak.