WASHINGTON -- A classified FBI intelligence memorandum, leaked to the New York Times last weekend, has raised concern among some civil-rights groups and lawmakers who worry that it reflects a growing tendency on the part of the Bush administration to promote security measures at the expense of key freedoms in the name of fighting terrorism.
Among other things the Oct. 15 memorandum calls for local law enforcement officials to report any suspicious activities at protests to its counter-terrorism squads. The Times described it as "the first corroboration of a coordinated, nationwide effort to collect intelligence regarding demonstrations."
"Attorney General (John) Ashcroft has dismissed critics of the Justice Department's tactics as 'hysterical' and has even said that such criticism aids the terrorists," said Anthony Romero, executive director off the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
"But this bulletin confirms that the federal government is targeting innocent Americans engaged in nothing more than lawful protest and dissent," he said, adding that citizens "deserve an explanation for what is clearly a return to the days of (former FBI director) J. Edgar Hoover's spying tactics."
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) raised similar questions and also called for an investigation of what the FBI and other intelligence agencies were planning. CCR is calling on Attorney General John Ashcroft to resign.
"Routine spying on dissidents is a sign of a police state, and unless we stop this administration's cavalier attitude towards fundamental rights we face a serious threat to our democracy," said Michael Ratner, president of CCR.
According to a front-page story in Sunday's Times, the memorandum was circulated last month to local law enforcement agencies across the country in advance of anticipated anti-war rallies in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.
Its disclosure comes amid increasing controversy about measures the government is taking to prosecute the war on terrorism at home, as well as abroad.
Last week Congress passed a new intelligence authorization bill that included a provision tacked on at the last moment that would expand the FBI's ability to demand that certain kinds of businesses turn over documents about their clients without any prior judicial review. Ashcroft has also indicated that he hopes to broaden the coverage of the 2002 USA PATRIOT Act to make it easier for the FBI to obtain information about suspected terrorists.
Nor is it only the expanded powers of the FBI that are causing concern. Writing in the Los Angeles Times Sunday, national-security analyst William Arkin warned that the military and intelligence communities are implementing far-reaching changes designed to break down long-established barriers to military action and surveillance in the U.S.
With the creation of the new U.S. Northern Command, he wrote, the military has begun to focus on waging the war on terror at home, as well as abroad. He quotes Command chief Gen. Ralph E. (Ed) Eberhart, as saying, " 'We must start thinking differently.' Before 9/11, the military and intelligence systems were focused on 'the away game' and not properly focused on 'the home game.' "
"[I]t doesn't seem far-fetched to imagine that those charged with assembling 'actionable intelligence' will slowly start combining data bases of known terrorists with seemingly innocuous lists of contributors to charities or causes, that membership lists for activist organizations will be folded in, that names and personal data of anti-globalization protesters will be run through the 'data mine,' " warned Arkin.
Meanwhile, another military expert, ret. Gen. Tommy Franks, who ran the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, told Cigar Aficionado magazine of his concern that another major terrorist attack on the order of 9/11 could cause citizens to "question our own Constitution and to begin to militarize our country in order to avoid another mass casualty-producing event."
The memo, according to the Times, described how protesters have sometimes used "training camps" to rehearse "tactics and counter-strategies for dealing with the police and to resolve any logistical issues." It also noted their use of the Internet to raise money and "coordinate their activities prior to demonstrations" --all perfectly legal activities.
It said protestors use "innovative strategies," like videotaping arrests as a means of "intimidation" against local police, and that protesters may raise money to help pay for lawyers for those who arrested.
"This reminds me of the old Nixon times and the enemies list," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who noted that that the administration has gone to "extraordinary lengths" in attacking lawmakers who question Bush's policy on Iraq. "How could we be fighting abroad to defend our freedoms and diminishing those freedoms here at home?" he asked.
FBI and Justice Department officials stressed that the memorandum offered normal intelligence guidelines targeted exclusively against terrorist activity and based on the assumption that terrorists or "anarchists" may infiltrate peaceful demonstrations to pursue their ends. They noted that black-clad anarchists had caused widespread property damage in attacks on businesses in Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization ministerial meeting there and in subsequent, smaller protests elsewhere in the U.S.
But American University law professor Herman Schwartz told the Times that the memorandum and the operations behind would very likely exercise a "serious chilling effect on peaceful demonstration. If you go around telling people, 'We're going to ferret out information on demonstrations,' that deters people. People don't want their names and pictures in FBI files," he said.
The ACLU's Romero was particularly disturbed by the warning about demonstration's videotapying arrests. "Most mainstream demonstrators often use videotape during protests to document law enforcement activity and, more importantly, deter police from acting outside the law."
While saying that the FBI possesses no information about any planned unlawful activity, the memorandum goes on to urge local law enforcement "to be alert to these possible indicators of protest activity and report any potentially illegal acts" to federal authorities.
Justin Raimondo, a liberterian commentator for the website antiwar.com, was especially struck by the FBI's concern about training camps, suggesting that the Bureau may be misinterpreting what is taught there. "Visions of wild-eyed anarchists learning how to make Molotov cocktails dance in the head, but the reality is much more prosaic: it's just a bunch of hippies playing touchy-feely games with each other and training in techniques designed to MINIMIZE violence," he noted.
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