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Jewish World Review June 10, 2002 /1 Tamuz, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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The scary 'new' FBI | At its chilling core, the reorganized FBI is a return to its disgraced COINTELRPO (counterintelligence operation) from 1956 to 1971. Then -- as it is now since ordered by John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller -- the FBI monitored, infiltrated and often manipulated entirely lawful civil rights, anti-war, and church organizations without any evidence of criminal activity, past, present or future.

COINTELRPO was closed down because of unbridled FBI abuses of the First and Fourth amendments, along with other parts of the Constitution. "The American people need to be reassured that never again will an agency of the government be permitted to conduct a secret war against those citizens it considered threats," pledged then-Sen. Frank Church of Idaho -- chairman of the Senate Select Committee to investigate the FBI's violations of fundamental American liberties -- in 1975.

Because of the abuses of COINTELRPO, guidelines were set -- which have now been dismissed by the attorney general -- requiring that FBI agents could not investigate gatherings in church or other meetings without some evidence that someone there may have done, or planned to do, something illegal.

The newly reorganized FBI can now send its disguised agents into religious institutions, libraries, and meetings of citizens critical of government policies -- without a previous complaint, or reason to believe, that a crime has been, or is about to be, committed.

As Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office says: "The FBI is now telling the American people, 'You no longer have to do anything unlawful in order to get that knock on the door.'"

However, Ashcroft claims that FBI agents can now go into any public place "under the same terms and conditions of any member of the public." But the rest of us, while not expecting privacy in a public place, do not expect to be spied on; or to be put in a FBI database because of what other people said at a meeting or what we say. We do not expect the amiable person next to us to be a secret agent of the government.

"Without the [post-COINTELRPO] guidelines, law enforcement authorities could conduct investigations that had a chilling effect on entirely appropriate lawful expression of political beliefs, the free exercise of religion, and the freedom of assembly," said former U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter, best known for diligently prosecuting the Abner Louima case, in a May 31 New York Times piece. Now the FBI can do it again.

It is very much worth noting that Ashcroft, acting unilaterally in bringing back COINTELRPO, did not inform Congress of it. Whether many members of Congress will investigate this breach of the Bill of Rights is doubtful because, with elections coming up, most may be afraid of being labeled unpatriotic by their opponents. And George W. Bush, chronically tone deaf to civil liberties, enthusiastically approves going back to the climate established by J. Edgar Hoover.

But for Congressional leaders whose commitment to protecting the Constitution is not limited to a speech on the Fourth of July, I urge their reflection on something else Sen. Church said in August 1975 when he warned that the American intelligence capabilities focusing on potential enemies could, "at any time" be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left. There would be no place to hide. And this was before the radical expansion of government electronic surveillance capabilities by the FBI.

"The Justice Department has gone too far," says Congressman James Sensenbrenner Jr., a firmly conservative Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. We can have security, he adds, "without throwing respect for civil liberties into the trash heap. We don't have to go back to the bad old days when the FBI was spying on people like Martin Luther King [Jr.]"

As if to justify Rep. Sensebrenner's fears, Ashcroft argues on the June 2 edition of ABC-TV's "This Week": "We shouldn't have to have leads or preliminary investigations" to send covert FBI agents into public meetings, churches, mosques, and the like. That's what J. Edgar Hoover fervently believed, and that's what the FBI can do again now.

Asked on CNN whether the FBI no longer needs leads or evidence to spy on us, Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas responded blithely, "There will be probable cause, some kind of evidence."

This is Congressional oversight of the "new" FBI?

And FBI Director Robert Mueller, asked on NBC's "Meet The Press" if we'll have to give up our civil liberties, as, without hesitation, "I don't believe so. I don't believe so at all."

J. Edgar Hoover, with the American flag in the background, used to say the same thing.

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JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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