FBI’s scare tactics trampling free speech

Wednesday, September 1, 2004

I remember the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover, who urgently believed that Americans actively protesting against government policies, including those of the FBI, required surveillance and chilling visitations by its agents to counsel them that certain speech resulted in unpleasant consequences for them. Current intimidation of protesters by Robert Mueller’s FBI brings back my memories of the 1950s and 1960s.

Back then, FBI agents came to see me, demanding the sources for my criticisms of the Bureau. Knowing my First Amendment rights, I politely sent them away. They did not return.

These days, however, FBI agents before last month’s Democratic convention and this week’s Republican convention have — with particular zeal, as described in an Aug. 19 editorial by the Denver Post — “gone about their mission aggressively, with little regard for basic rights and without evidence that the people they are trying to dissuade are actually intending any criminal activity.”

The editorial cites “a 21-year-old intern with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker public service group that once won the Nobel Peace Prize,” who “says she and her friends were questioned even though they [had] no plans to go to New York.”

And an Aug. 19 report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch tells of “three men from Kirksville, Mo., [who] were so unnerved at being followed by agents and called to a grand jury here last month that they abandoned plans for peaceful protest outside the Democratic National Convention in Boston.” They now refuse to have their identities disclosed.

Denise Lieberman, the American Civil Liberties Union legal director for eastern Missouri, told me that the subpoenas required the three men to appear on July 29 — the very date they had planned to be in Boston before they decided not to go.

After they appeared before the grand jury for about five minutes, no charges were filed against them.

The FBI, says Ms. Lieberman, had asked them if they had knowledge of anyone planning “criminally disorderly conduct” at the Democratic or Republican convention, presidential debates or other places. “The fact that they did not answer the questions,” Ms. Lieberman told the Post-Dispatch, “may have raised the red flag and gotten them the subpoena.”

Because of the appallingly low level of educational instruction about the history of our Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, in school systems around the country, it’s likely that these protesters didn’t know they had a First Amendment right not to answer the agents’ questions before they were subpoenaed.

Now, adds Ms. Lieberman, “they’re quite shaken and terrified by the experience. They’re concerned if they speak out, they’re going to be targeted further.”

Part of that “experience” included being conspicuously followed by four FBI cars for five days, including when they went to the grocery store and the movies. Moreover, the homeowners of the house they stayed at in St. Louis were followed to work by the FBI. One of them — pulled aside by a supervisor — felt his job was on the line. What a chilling touch of Castro’s Havana right in St. Louis.

As similar reports of intimidating FBI tracking in other cities kept arriving, Cassandra Chandler, assistant director of the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs in Washington, said: “The FBI is not monitoring groups or interviewing individuals unless we receive intelligence that such individuals or groups may be planning violent and disruptive criminal activity or have knowledge of such activity.”

The key worrisome phrase for civil libertarians is “may be planning.” As ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero told the Aug. 18 New York Times: “It’s not enough for the FBI to say that there’s the potential for criminal activity. That’s not the legal threshold, and if that were really [the legal threshold], they could investigate anybody.”

In Kansas City, the Associated Press reported on Aug. 19 that 21-year-old Nate Hoffman, a University of Missouri-Kansas City student, was approached by FBI agents at a coffeehouse. They asked whether he or anybody he knew planned to engage in violence at the Democratic conventions in Boston. Mr. Hoffman knew enough about the Constitution to refuse to answer without a lawyer.

“They told me,” says Hoffman, “that in their experience that when somebody didn’t want to talk to them that meant they probably had something to hide.”

Speaking for a growing number of young Americans, Mr. Hoffman notes: “You always hear that when you become politically active, you’re put on some list. But it doesn’t become real until you get a visit from the FBI.”

During the presidential debates, will anyone ask the candidates about these visits commemorating the reign of J. Edgar Hoover? On Aug. 20, Attorney General John Ashcroft not surprisingly told the New York Times that any “suggestions that the interviews were aimed at stifling protests were an ‘outrageous distortion.’ ”

Would James Madison agree?

Published with the permission of Nat Hentoff. May be linked to but not republished without Hentoff’s permission. Originally posted on The Washington Times Web site on Aug. 30. Hentoff is a contributing editor to Editor & Publisher and also writes for The Village Voice in New York.