For '60s Activists, Fear of Old Abuses in New FBI Powers
Published on Monday, June 17, 2002 in the Boston Globe
For '60s Activists, Fear of Old Abuses in New FBI Powers
by Wayne Washington

WASHINGTON - John Lewis remembers seeing them just on the periphery of the action.

He and others would be rallying, meeting, or marching, pressing for civil rights deep in the American South of the 1960s, and the FBI agents would often be there, too.

They'd be nonparticipants, of course. But they'd be there just the same.

Lewis, director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, wanted the agents to take a more active role, ''stopping the discrimination and the beatings,'' he said.

A few years later, Lewis learned why the G-men simply scribbled down names and notes while he and others were bitten by dogs and beaten by local police.

''They were spying on the movement,'' said Lewis, now a US representative from Georgia.

The spying extended to individuals as well. Tom Hayden, a former California state legislator who was a leader of the civil rights and antiwar movements during the 1960s, found memos calling for him to be ''neutralized.''

The FBI's counterintelligence programs on civil rights advocates, black radicals, and pacifists - code-named Cointelpro - generated a backlash after they came to light in the early 1970s. That backlash led to restrictions on how agents could conduct surveillance, how long they could conduct it, and who could be the subject of such surveillance.

Sept. 11, however, has provided federal officials with the motivation for a return to domestic surveillance. New guidelines spelled out by the Justice Department on May 30 make it clear that agents will be allowed to conduct ''online research'' even if their efforts are not linked to an established criminal investigation. Preliminary inquiries, which allow agents to gather evidence before a crime is committed, can take as long as a year, well beyond the old 90-day limit. Special agents in charge at the field office level can authorize terrorism investigations that used to require the approval of the director or assistant director of the bureau.

The new rules also allow agents to enter public places and events, such as religious gatherings and political events, to investigate possible terrorist activities.

Justice Department officials have emphasized that the excesses of the past won't be repeated.

But Lewis and others who found their names in once-secret FBI files aren't so sure.

''If they start down this road, it won't be halfway,'' Lewis said. ''It won't be a little bit. This is a very dangerous thing to do in a society such as ours.''

Supporters of the new policies argue that the safety of that society depends on an FBI that can monitor some residents to make sure all are protected. Even before the new rules were announced, former FBI agent Michael Miles was calling for more internal scrutiny.

''We're going to have to have an MI-5-type organization that just does domestic intelligence,'' said Miles, who was a counterterrorism consultant for Saudi Arabia. ''We can't win this war without domestic intelligence.'' MI-5 is the British security intelligence system. It is similar to the CIA, but has more power to spy in domestic matters.

The British and people in some other European nations are more comfortable with domestic surveillance than Americans are, a fact that terrorists are well aware of, he said. Germany is an example of how opportunistic terrorists are, Miles said.

''There's a reason Al Qaeda based themselves in Germany,'' Miles said. ''With the history of the Gestapo, they know Germany's not going to spy on them. So they've used Germany as a sort of base. It's frustrating.''

However, many Americans, particularly those who have been the subject of domestic surveillance, find the prospect of a newly aggressive FBI alarming.

Lewis recalls former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's determined view, evident years later in the reams of documents Lewis got through the Freedom of Information Act, that the antiwar and civil rights movements had been infiltrated by communists who were using them to destabilize the United States.

And now, in Attorney General John D. Ashcroft's statements and in the new insistence that terrorists have burrowed deep into American society, Lewis sees frightening parallels. ''It is eerie,'' he said. ''It reminds me of another period in our history.''

After hearing how the bureau spied on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis requested documents on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He got one batch on the organization and another on him.

The documents tracked Lewis's movements, noted people he spoke to and what he did. He was outraged, he said, but not shocked. ''We had lived with the possibility that this was going on,'' Lewis said. ''I was more surprised that they spent all of this time doing this. I felt then and still do feel that it was a waste of manpower.''

Hayden shares that view.

He obtained more than 20,000 pages of information through the Freedom of Information Act documenting domestic surveillance by both the CIA and the FBI.

''Included were memos from Hoover ordering that I be `neutralized' and inviting FBI suggestions,'' Hayden said.

Louis Schneider, executive secretary of the pacifist American Friends Service Committee from 1974 to 1980, said he remembers the day he got copies of the secret files the FBI had compiled on his organization.

The large stacks of boxes came with a 50-page summary that concluded that AFSC is not a ''subversive organization. It is a sincere pacifist organization.''

''I was amazed to see letters I had written to agencies in other countries'' inside the boxes, Schneider said. One letter, addressed to an agency head in Moscow, was opened and resealed.

Hayden said he does not oppose monitoring groups that could do serious harm, ''but my experience indicates that our intelligence agencies always have a political and ideological agenda that interferes with their ability to understand the sources of hatred and alienation,'' he said.

That fundamental lack of understanding is part of the reason why the FBI has gone too far in the past, said Brian Glick, a lawyer who has represented civil rights era clients and written a book about the bureau's actions during Cointelpro.

Glick said he believes the bureau never completely stopped conducting Cointelpro-like operations; they just did fewer on a smaller scale. But now, with old restrictions removed, all bets are off, he said.

''My sense is the restrictions have operated somewhat like speed limits,'' he said. ''If the speed limit is 55 miles per hour, we'll drive 65, 70, or even 80.''

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company