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The FBI should not be given more power to spy on dissenters in America. In fact, it should not have that power at all.
Once upon a time, the FBI could investigate a person or organization only when the agency had reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. This crucial requirement came about after the revelations of massive FBI abuse in the 1960s and early 1970s.
In 1976, Sen. Frank Church of Idaho held hearings on FBI wrongdoing. The Church Committee’s findings shed crucial light.
In the wake of the hearings, the attorney general of the United States drafted guidelines that mandated a criminal predicate before the FBI could launch an investigation. While often honored in the breach, and watered down over the years, until 9/11 this requirement served as a crucial bulwark against FBI intrusion into our protected First Amendment activities.
Unfortunately after the Sept. 11 attacks, first under Attorney General John Ashcroft and then under Attorney General Michael Mukasey, the requirement of a criminal predicate was removed. As a result, the FBI and other anti-terrorist agencies spied on many forms of legitimate protest and dissent. For example, pacifist groups such as the Thomas Merton Center and Catholic Worker were investigated under the rubric of domestic terrorism.
Protests have been a special target. For instance, 15 months prior to the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., a specially created FBI Intelligence Center began to spy on, and place informants in, groups it suspected were going to participate in demonstrations.
President Obama campaigned on protecting our civil liberties, so you might have expected his attorney general, Eric Holder, to provide people with greater protections from FBI snoops. But he has not. And it is about to get even worse.
The new Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide will empower the FBI to dispatch surveillance teams, to follow targets, to dig through trash, to search commercial databases and to expand the use of informants to infiltrate a wide range of organizations.
If you are part of a group that disagrees with government policy in Iraq or Afghanistan, or that dislikes nuclear energy, the next time you throw out your trash, an FBI agent may be examining it a few hours later — from what you eat to what you buy to what you read and think.
The next time you attend a meeting to fight for better schools, protest drug testing on animals or criticize almost any aspect of government policy, the person next to you may be an informant, recording everything you say. Or perhaps the informant will participate in the meeting, steering the organization’s activities in ways the government wishes.
It is now almost ten years after 9/11, the event that frightened many into giving the FBI broad spying authority — authority that now threatens the very essence of democracy. Piece by piece, the constitutional protections for dissent are disappearing.
It’s time for new congressional hearings, similar to the Church Committee’s, on FBI spying. We must protest the new expanded powers about to be bestowed on the FBI and follow that with a demand to Attorney General Holder for new guidelines ensuring that dissent and protest will be off-limits to the FBI.
Michael Ratner is the president and Margaret Ratner Kunstler is former education director at the Center for Constitutional Rights. They are the co-authors of “Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in the Twenty-First Century” and can be reached at email@example.com.
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