The dangerous new FBI

With nobody willing to speak up as our civil liberties erode, who will protect us from the new agency dedicated to spying on Americans?

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Published June 4, 2002 8:51PM (EDT)

At the same time that President Bush dumped 30-year guidelines that banned FBI spying on domestic organizations, he also solemnly swore to honor the Constitution and respect civil liberties. But that would be impossible. The new guidelines give the FBI carte blanche to surveil, and plant agents in, churches, mosques and, of course, political groups; they also permit FBI agents to ransack the Internet to hunt for potential subversives. They can do all this without having to show probable cause of criminal wronging. Just as in the days of J. Edgar Hoover, these new rules give the FBI unbridled power to determine who and what groups and individuals it can target.

Bush truly believes that the war on terrorism must override the freedoms that he promises to respect -- a sentiment that has come from the White House for more than 40 years. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon claimed that the battle to nail domestic subversives -- that is, communists, socialists, black nationalists, Black Panthers and civil rights leaders, most notably Martin Luther King Jr. -- justified bending, twisting, and ultimately breaking the law and violating civil liberties.

It was certainly true that some Black Panthers and Weatherman members, with their violence-laced, off-the-pig and bomb-the-state rhetoric and antics, deserved intense surveillance from insider plants and busts from the FBI. But the same can hardly be said of King and other moderate civil rights leaders who were committed to peaceful change within the system.

There is also ample evidence from the correspondence, internal memos, and discussions made public by historians and former White House staffers that Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon knew that the moderate civil rights leaders posed no real threat to the established order, yet they still winked and nodded as Hoover launched the supersecret and blatantly illegal counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, that targeted those leaders as well as thousands of innocent Americans during the 1960s. The mandate of the program, spelled out in the stacks of secret documents released by Senate investigators in 1976, was to "disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and neutralize" groups and individuals the FBI considered politically objectionable. Those targeted in nearly all cases were not foreign spies, terrorists, or individuals suspected of criminal acts.

The FBI patterned COINTELPRO on the methods used by its counterintelligence division and internal security sections during the 1940s and '50s. The arsenal of dirty tactics used by the bureau included unauthorized wiretaps, undercover plants, agents provocateurs, poison-pen letters, black-bag jobs, and the compiling of secret dossiers. Driven by a grotesque mix of personal racism and paranoia, Hoover kicked the program into high gear in the 1960s. The FBI assembled thousands of "ghetto informants" and hundreds of FBI agents in a relentless campaign to harass and intimidate African-American groups. The FBI listed the targeted individuals under categories variously titled Rabble Rouser Index, Agitator Index or Security Index.

The results were immediate and devastating. Thousands lost their jobs, were expelled from schools, evicted from their homes and offices, and publicly slandered. Few of those individuals were indicted, convicted or even accused of any crime. FBI documents released in 1976 revealed that the agency devoted less than 20 percent of its spy activities to infiltrating organized crime or to solving bank robberies, murders, rapes and interstate theft. More than half of its spy targets were political organizations.

Hoover gave local FBI offices wide discretion to pick and choose their targets and the tactics they could use. The new guidelines, like the old FBI spy campaign, give local agents the same wide discretion to determine what groups or individuals it can investigate and what tactics they can use to investigate them.

With the death of Hoover in 1972 and congressional disclosure of the illegal program, the Justice Department assured the public that COINTELPRO was a thing of the past and that it had implemented ironclad control over FBI activities. It didnt. During the 1980s, the FBI waged a five-year covert spy campaign against dozens of religious and pacifist groups and leaders that opposed American foreign policy in Central America. In the 1990s it mounted covert campaigns against civil rights, environmental, and anti-nuclear disarmament groups, as well as against Native American and Arab-American groups. The FBI tactics used against those groups were an exact repeat of the tactics that the 1970s guidelines had supposedly banned.

Attorney General John Ashcroft says that the FBI will not use its restored powers to wage war on law-abiding groups, or maintain illicit files and dossiers on prominent citizens. But FBI officials said the same thing during the 1960s. Then, as now, those in the press and the few liberal Democrats who occasionally questioned FBI abuses had to accept the denials. No government agency in those days would dare attempt to compel the FBI to prove it didnt illegally spy. In the current climate of political fear, it remains to be seen if congressional agencies will be any more diligent in their oversight of the FBI. Bush says that scrapping the old ban on FBI spying will give the FBI tools to defeat terrorism. But if the past is any indication, the "enemies of the state" will be just about anyone and everyone the FBI agents finger. In this post-Sept. 11 climate of fear and political timidity, who will dispute them?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a contributor to Pacific News Service and the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black."

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