WASHINGTON - December 20 - An organization at the forefront of combating illegal FBI surveillance tactics in the seventies now urges Congress to undertake a complete and thorough review of reports that the Pentagon is spying on “peaceful anti-war and counter-military recruitment groups.”
Calling it a “new McCarthyism,” the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) also likened the troublesome revelation to the notorious COINTELPRO, an acronym for Counter Intelligence Program – the covert FBI project aimed at undercutting Vietnam anti-war organizing and the civil rights movement. COINTELPRO was publicly unmasked through congressional hearings in 1975, leading to stronger congressional oversight of federal law enforcement. Many of the protections instituted then have been eroded in recent years under the USA PATRIOT Act and other domestic surveillance activities authorized by the President. Concerned Americans are encouraged to write their Congressional representatives in Washington.
“Clearly the constitutional right of free speech and peaceful assembly is not a criminal offense,” states Mary Ellen McNish, general secretary of AFSC, an international social justice organization and co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. “It’s an outrage.”
Early last week, NBC reported the existence of a secret Department of Defense (DOD) database related to “potential terrorist threats.” One example of identified “threats” is a group in Lake Worth, Florida that included five Quakers and a 79-year old grandmother who met at their local Quaker meeting house to discuss how to protest military recruiting at an area high school. Other examples of “threatening” events in the database included handing out literature in front of military recruiting stations and commemorating the second anniversary of the Iraq War.
At least four of the events listed were activities coordinated or supported by AFSC.
The report by NBC News was followed last Friday by a story in the New York Times that President Bush has secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the U.S. without court-approved warrants. The President and the DOD now admit they’ve been spying on thousands of people in this country for simply exercising their constitutional rights.
Additionally, the ACLU recently released documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act that show the FBI ‘Joint Terrorism Task Force’ is recording the names and license plate numbers of peaceful protesters.
“We must not forget that it was not so long ago that COINTELPRO was infiltrating student groups illegally and plotting against ‘radical’ activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” states Joyce Miller, AFSC assistant general secretary for justice and human rights. “We must take action now to see that history doesn’t repeat itself.”
“This new wave of spying can only be seen as a threat to our constitutional rights to free speech and the freedom of assembly,” McNish adds. “We have a fundamental right to speak our minds and organize on the issues of the day.”
Recently AFSC legally challenged similar surveillance activities in Denver, Colorado, Chicago and other communities.
“In Denver, the courts agreed with us then that spying, not free speech, is a threat, as they did during the Vietnam War, when we helped win guarantees that our military will not spy on Americans,” McNish observes.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, AFSC secured hundreds of federal files detailing government surveillance projects and intelligence documents targeting U.S. peace groups in the early 70s. Public exposure of the Pentagon papers, FBI files and other documents gave a glimpse of the vast extent of surveillance, record keeping and disruptive (and sometimes lethal) activity carried on by government intelligence agencies, from the CIA and FBI down to local police against large numbers of American citizens.
“It is imperative that we uphold the Bill of Rights and not trample the very principles upon which our country was founded, especially now — when war rages on in Iraq, and anxiety about terrorism causes fear and suspicion of our fellow citizens,” McNish commented. “This is the great lesson learned from the mistakes of World War II and the unjust internment of our Japanese neighbors and fellow citizens.”
Historically, members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) have been known for ‘speaking truth to power,’ hence becoming the subject of suspicion and at times violence because of their pacifism. Friends have worked to assist runaway slaves and have been prominent in the civil rights movement. The American Friends Service Committee, along with the British Friends Service Council, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the humanitarian work of Quakers during and after World Wars I and II. With national headquarters in Philadelphia, AFSC has offices across the United States and in 22 countries of the world working for peace, indigenous and immigrant rights and a host of social and economic justice issues.
For more information, including ways to write Congressional representatives to vocalize concerns about government spying, visit the AFSC web at afsc.org.