MONTREAL - Sarah Bardwell did not get the names of the four FBI agents and
two police officers who questioned her and her roommates late
on the afternoon of Jul. 22 on the front porch of their house in
Denver. ''We asked them for their names and they said they
wouldn't give us their names because we wouldn't give them
''They told us they were doing pre-emptive investigations into
possible -- I think their exact words were 'terrorists, anarchists
and murderers'. Then they specified (it was about people) that
may be planning actions for the RNC or the DNC,'' she says in a
telephone interview from her house.
The Republican National Convention (RNC) will be held later
this month to officially nominate U.S. President George W Bush
as candidate for November's presidential election. The
Democratic National Convention (DNC) took place in July,
nominating Senator John Kerry.
After about 25 minutes of a mixture of aggressive and then
chummy questioning of Bardwell and her roommates, the six
officers left, after warning the group that they would be making
''more intrusive efforts'' to find the information they were seeking.
These types of FBI tactics are counterproductive. They
produce fear and resentment, not results.
According to media reports this week, Bardwell is one of
possibly dozens of protesters that FBI agents have questioned
in recent weeks, an act that has provoked peals of protest
country-wide from those who say the visits violate the freedoms
guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.
They also raise the question of whether the Bush
administration is creating a ''climate of fear'' that is seeping
beyond the Muslim and Arab communities that were scrutinized
by security agencies after the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on
New York and Washington.
Yes, says the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). ''I think
(the visits to protesters) definitely contributes to a climate of fear
and intimidation,'' says Emily Whitfield, the New York-based
group's director of media relations.
News of the interrogations come weeks before the Republican
Party is slated to officially nominate Bush at the RNC in New
York City, an event that protesters have been planning for
months to disrupt. Authorities have been plotting their security
response for just as long, with the New York Police Department,
for example, working with the Secret Service for the past 18
On Tuesday, three members of Congress wrote to the Justice
Department asking it to probe the FBI visits, calling them
''systematic political harassment and intimidation of legitimate
anti-war protests,'' reported the 'New York Times'.
In a statement, FBI Assistant Director Cassandra M Chandler
responded that the agency ''is not monitoring groups or
interviewing individuals unless we receive intelligence that such
individuals or groups may be planning violent and disruptive
criminal activity or have knowledge of such activity.''
''The F.B.I. conducted interviews, within the bounds of the U.S.
Constitution, in order to determine the validity of the threat
information,'' she added.
But Bardwell, an intern at the American Friends Service
Committee who calls herself a social justice activist says neither
she nor her roommates were planning to attend either
convention. In February 2003, Bardwell helped organize local
''We hadn't even been following it; I didn't even know when it
was going to happen. I think (the FBI is) basically just justifying
violating people's first amendment rights (of freedom of religion,
speech and assembly),'' she adds.
The ACLU warned of a climate of fear following the 9/11
attacks after the FBI in 2001 and 2002 questioned 8,000
Muslims and Arabs in the United States. ''All public accounts
indicate that the questioning did not yield apprehension of a
single terrorist,'' said the group in a statement.
Two weeks ago, the ACLU said it was joining up with lawyers
around the country to provide free legal advice to any Muslim or
Arab-Americans caught up in a new round of questioning by the
FBI, announced earlier this year.
''These types of FBI tactics are counterproductive. They
produce fear and resentment, not results,'' said Dalia Hashad,
the ACLU's Arab, Muslim and South Asian advocate.
''Fear has two sides of the same coin,'' says James Brochin, a
lawyer and teacher who has studied periods in U.S. history
when authorities curtailed civil liberties.
''One is the fear of communists (in the 1950s crackdown
known as 'McCarthyism') or terrorism. And the other side is the
fear of one's neighbor and the fear of the consequences of
saying stuff out loud that would sound like you're sympathetic to
these threatening elements. So it's both the fear of communism
(or terrorism) and the fear of our own government,'' adds
''Those two things, both, result in a loss of freedom. One is a
self-censorship and the other is either enforcement of existing
laws or creation of new laws that actually do result in intrusion
into our privacy or create situations where loyalty oaths -- either
metaphoric or actual -- are imposed on the general public,'' he
According to Samuel Walker, a professor in the department of
criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, ''there is
(today) a general climate of fear and there are specific abuses''
by authorities against civil liberties.
He singles out provisions of the USA Patriot Act, passed in
response to the 9/11 attacks, which permit security agencies to
access medical or library records without a subpoena or a
But Walker stresses that ''the Bush administration has been
challenged in every conceivable forum ... there are more cases
than I can keep track of. The Supreme Court decisions are very
important,'' he tells IPS.
In June the court ruled that foreign prisoners of Washington's
"war on terrorism" held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba have the right
to contest their detention in Federal Court and that U.S. citizens
held as ''enemy combatants'' were entitled to full due-process
The ACLU launched another challenge Thursday, arguing the
administration should not be able to use secret evidence to
defend against a suit from a number of groups that oppose the
Patriot Act's powers to access private records and to use
''national security letters'' to obtain personal information from
Internet service providers and other businesses without judicial
Walker is optimistic that the attack on civil liberties could be
quickly stopped if Kerry were to win the Nov. 2 election.
Whitfield says the public is joining ACLU's fight against the
administration's squeezing of civil liberties since 9/11. While the
number of new members to the group increased by fewer than
1,000 people from 1999 to 2000, it soared by more than 14,000
from 2000 to 2001, by more than 19,000 the following year and
by more than 52,000 from 2002 to 2003.
During the same period, donations to ACLU via the World Wide
Web jumped nearly 10-fold, from more than 187,000 dollars in
1999 to 1.6 million dollars in 2003, she added.
Yet a poll released Wednesday by the Council on Foreign
Relations found that almost twice as many U.S. citizens were
concerned the government had not done enough to guarantee
their safety than were worried about undue restrictions on civil
Bardwell also believes the administration has a duty to protect
citizens. "The government obviously has an obligation to protect
people. That's very clear to me. But I think what's happening is
not protection for the people of the United States; I think it's
protection of a corrupt government.''
© Copyright 2004 IPS - Inter Press Service