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Domestic spying: Be afraid. Be very afraid

DAN K. THOMASSON / Capitol Hill Blue | December 30 2005

The FBI, it seems, has been keeping an eye on any number of domestic organizations that appear to have little to do with its stepped up counterintelligence assignment -- shades of Cointelpro, "Commie" hunting, black-bag jobs, and a variety of other notorious activities from the '50s, '60s, and '70s that made the bureau the scourge of any protester who might disagree with prevailing government policy in a demonstrative fashion.
The difference, of course, is that the word "terrorism" has been substituted for "communism" (at least in most cases) as the stated reason for checking up on such groups as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an admittedly pain-in-the-rear group who would discourage us from such violent activity as milking cows. This comes at a time when the bureau's reputation for ferreting out truly dangerous folks who might be plotting another assault on America is under attack from a half-dozen quarters, including Congress, where former allies have been disillusioned by one failure after another.

The bureau reportedly has some 4,000 of its 11,000-plus agents now assigned to seeking out domestic links to al Qaeda and other terrorist networks. So why, it is proper to ask, is it concerned with the antics of environmental extremists such as Greenpeace and anti-war demonstrators? The bureau says that it has a duty to check into any group that might be plotting some criminal activity. Fair enough, but as violent as some of these groups and individuals get is to climb a tree and refuse to come down or unfurl a banner where they shouldn't.

Don't misunderstand, the '70s weren't all that benign and the FBI did have legitimate concerns when it came to the violent student groups such as the anarchic Weather Underground many of whose members were extremely bright, if intellectually twisted, and who alluded capture for years. Groups such as the Symbanese Liberation Army of Patty Hearst infamy were actually just made up of sociopaths who infiltrated the legitimate antiwar movement as an excuse for other activities, including extortion and robbery.

For that reason, the FBI's current posture in surveillance of seemingly nonthreatening organizations is not all bad. The danger comes in wasting time and money and effort on groups that are well-established with goals that have nothing to do with violent terrorism. This policy merely engenders bad publicity, is constitutionally questionable, and deters the bureau from the mission of preventing another 9-11. In a town where nothing is a secret for long, there is no hope of keeping such activity under wraps, nor should there be. The bureau has struggled to overcome the "storm trooper" image of the '70s and to install reforms that would preclude the abuses from recurring.

Granted the terrorists are a threat unlike any the nation has ever confronted, given their faceless nature. But there also are demands to maintaining an open society. Balancing the need to protect that openness from external threats while not adopting internal measures that injure the freedoms that have made it so great is always delicate. Sometimes the cost of liberty is high, but it is necessary to pay it. Few of the nation's institutions should understand that better than the FBI with its record of internal turmoil over the last century.

Americans are increasingly sensitive about the "Big Brother" intrusions into their everyday living. Few complain about the need for stricter security nearly everywhere they go. But to be subjected to warrantless wiretaps and official fishing expeditions and other government spying on every aspect of their existence, including what they read at the library, is becoming almost an intolerable burden. That is especially true when it comes against a backdrop of decreased privacy in every normal endeavor of modern life.

Cointelpro, the compiling of information about anyone who seemed to disagree with what J. Edgar Hoover and his minions saw as the American way, was a disgrace the bureau survived only by cleaning up its act. The break ins and other activities, some clearly illegal and others highly questionable, conducted by the FBI were career ending for any number of dedicated FBI supervisors and agents, including Mark Felt, who recently admitted to being the "Deep Throat" of Watergate fact and fiction. Felt was convicted and subsequently pardoned for his part in illegal activities in the name of national security.

The last thing the FBI wants is a repeat of those activities. It can only undermine what is needed to keep the true terrorists at bay. No organization needs to be more diligent in monitoring itself to prevent the excesses.


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