When the FBI comes knocking: a wake-up call for freedom

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Thanksgiving week, 1969.

Awakened at 7 a.m. by a loud banging noise, I opened my dorm-room door to find two tall men in dark suits flashing badges from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. My heart froze. What could I have possibly done to be rousted out of bed at the crack of dawn?

As it turned out, my only crime was to be on a long list of people throughout the nation organizing demonstrations against the Vietnam War. From the little they revealed (they asked the questions), I gathered that my FBI visitors were looking for links between student leaders of the anti-war movement and extremists involved in violent acts.

That early-morning knock on the door was a wake-up call in more ways than one. For the first time, I became aware of how closely the FBI monitored anyone and everyone who protested government policies. They knew exactly where to find me – a minor player at best – in my little dorm room in Atlanta.

Fast-forward to Thanksgiving week, 2003.

The New York Times reports that a confidential FBI bulletin about anti-war protesters was sent to local law enforcement agencies last month – just before major anti-war demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco. The bulletin is one of a series of weekly FBI memoranda concerning terrorist threats and activities.

According to the Times, the bulletin reveals that the FBI is collecting “extensive information on the tactics, training and organization of antiwar demonstrators and has advised local law enforcement officials to report any suspicious activity at protests to its counterterrorism squads.”

If you were alive in the ‘60s, alarm bells should be going off. The danger then is the danger now: When the government responds to a national crisis by creating a vast, covert program to monitor dissent, First Amendment freedoms and other civil liberties are seriously threatened.

“What is the chilling effect that will be felt by Americans all across the country if they think they will come under FBI scrutiny just by going to a protest?” asked Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union in an Associated Press story about the FBI bulletin.

Of course, anti-war protests can sometimes (though rarely) turn violent. But protest, even when it includes civil disobedience, is not terrorism. Surely the FBI can do the job of stopping terrorists without sweeping intelligence-gathering efforts that appear to equate protest and dissent with terrorism and violence.

After the upheaval of the Vietnam protests, it took years to uncover what many of us suspected about government abuses in the 1960s and 1970s. According to a 1976 congressional report, between 1960 and 1974, the FBI compiled intelligence files on more than 500,000 individual Americans and organizations, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many other nonviolent political protesters. None of this had much to do with “national security”; it had everything to do with politics.

The 1976 congressional report concluded that “unless new and tighter controls are established by legislation, domestic intelligence activities threaten to undermine our democratic society and fundamentally alter its nature.”

Are there enough safeguards today? Not according to many critics of the USA Patriot Act, signed into law in October 2001. Civil libertarians charge that some provisions of the act, combined with executive-branch directives, have relaxed restrictions on FBI investigations of political activities.

For example, FBI agents are now permitted to infiltrate worship services and political meetings without advance justification to their supervisors. And it’s now much easier for the FBI to obtain records about anyone from libraries, businesses and elsewhere.

Against this backdrop, it shouldn’t be surprising that revelation of a nationwide, coordinated FBI effort to gather intelligence about anti-war demonstrations is raising new fears that the government is once again jeopardizing civil liberties in the name of national security.

There’s no evidence that wide intelligence-gathering by the FBI made the nation safer or better in 1969 – and there’s no evidence that it will this time around. But such efforts did help stifle protest in 1969 – and may do so again.

Americans have a right to dissent without waking up one morning to find the FBI standing at the door.

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