DESPITE THE FBI's denials, recent disclosures of intelligence efforts against lawful antiwar protesters are strong reminders of the bureau's intensive undercover operations of the 1960s and '70s. Those counterintelligence operations, known as COINTELPRO, sought to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" the activities of targets that included communist organizations, civil rights groups, the Ku Klux Klan, and anti-Vietnam War protesters. While the current revelations are confined to the monitoring of perceived threats rather than active harassment, the broad sweep of the FBI's efforts should raise serious concerns over the bureau's motives and methods.
The New York Times has reported that these methods now include the use of "firsthand observation, informants, and public sources like the Internet" to gather "extensive information on the tactics, training, and organization of antiwar demonstrators." Bureau officials were careful to emphasize that this effort is not designed to monitor the masses of law-abiding protesters, but instead to target anarchists and other "extremist elements" likely to plot and carry out violent acts. But clearly their net was cast more broadly, as the FBI's weekly bulletin to local law enforcement officials contained information about legal movement tactics such as online fund-raising, passive monitoring of police arrests, and activist "training camps."
The sheer scope of these efforts closely parallels the organizational logic of COINTELPRO. In my analysis of more than 6,000 pages of FBI memos related to the anti-Vietnam War movement, I found that agents initiated more than 450 actions against hundreds of groups and individuals between 1968 and 1971. These actions ranged from faked anonymous letters to planted evidence to falsified media stories to massive surreptitious infiltration by informants.
Agents' efforts were not designed to reduce criminal activities, nor were they discriminating in their reach. Curious sympathizers were frequently portrayed as insurgents within the FBI's files merely because they happened to attend a particular open meeting. These labels were created to feed an internal demand, as agents in the field conveniently "found" the national security threats that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had identified ahead of time.
The FBI feels it is well within its bounds to monitor the activities of law-abiding dissenters, even while acknowledging that it "possesses no information indicating that violent or terrorist activities are being planned as part of these protests." On the surface, such actions are far from COINTELPRO, which had moved beyond surveillance to expressly harass its targets. But, the lines between what the FBI refers to as "intelligence-gathering" and more intrusive "counterintelligence" easily blur. The ACLU is quick to point out that even the suspicion of police surveillance at public demonstrations effectively deters many would-be participants.
This chilling effect is certainly a valid concern, as are the numerous anecdotal accounts of more active attempts by police to limit the expression of dissent at peaceful demonstrations. A more far-reaching danger, however, may be found in the volatile combination of a very real, though nebulous, threat and the wide latitude given to the FBI to proactively disarm it.
The Cold War specter of communism and the current-day concern with terrorism generate the same type of response: seeing all dissent as a product of the "anti-American" logic of its most extreme elements. Even as the majority of Americans supported our exit from Vietnam by the early 1970s, the FBI continued to characterize all protesters at massive demonstrations as potentially "urging revolution" and "calling for the defeat of the United States in Vietnam."
Similarly, recent demonstrations against global trade policies and the war in Iraq have included a remarkably broad cross-section of the population, though the potential for "anarchists" and "terrorists" to commit acts of violence and sabotage provides justification for the surveillance of all attendees at events even the FBI acknowledges are "mostly peaceful."
This broad-brush strategy, in which law-abiding individuals become suspect, has thus far provoked no unified outrage from congressional leaders. This is in sharp contrast to the mid-1970s, when Congress's reaction to the public exposure of COINTELPRO and related intelligence community abuses led to a number of significant reforms.
In 1976, Attorney General Edward Levi established clear guidelines for FBI agents, requiring that they investigate only specific criminal acts or conspiracies, rather than individuals' political views. Two years later, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act instituted a rotating set of judges to oversee FBI agents' monitoring of suspected foreign terrorists.
Today, new guidelines by Attorney General John Ashcroft, in conjunction with the USA Patriot and Homeland Security Acts, have largely eradicated these reforms and provided FBI agents with unprecedented latitude when conducting investigations. Clearly, as Ashcroft argues, a lack of vigilance can have incredibly high costs. But civil liberties advocates are not calling for limits on the policing of illegal activities.
No special guideline from the attorney general's office is required for the FBI to monitor individuals suspected of committing criminal or terrorist acts, or even those conspiring to do so in the future. The slippery slope begins when the expression of First Amendment freedoms make large numbers of people potentially suspect and therefore appropriate subjects of intelligence-gathering efforts.
In 1976, Senator Philip Hart's heartfelt appeal during a congressional hearing into FBI abuses underscored the risks inherent in having uncritical faith in the bureau's mission. As the Michigan Democrat noted then: "I have been told for years by, among others, some of my own family, that [FBI harassment of protesters] is exactly what the bureau was doing all of the time, and in my great wisdom and high office, I assured them that they were wrong -- it just wasn't true, it couldn't happen. They wouldn't do it. What has been described here is a series of illegal actions intended squarely to deny First Amendment rights to some Americans. That is what my children have told me was going on. I did not believe it. The trick now, as I see it, is for this committee to be able to figure out how to persuade the people of this country that indeed it did go on."
Twenty-seven years ago, the committee did successfully convince the public, and also established clear oversight mechanisms for the intelligence community. Now, as the autonomy of the FBI has largely been restored, we can't excuse our own lack of vigilance by citing an unerring faith in the bureau's ability to self-regulate its actions.
This time, it shouldn't take our children's pleas to see the potential for constitutional abuse in current intelligence-community policies.
David Cunningham, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Brandeis University, is the author of the forthcoming book "There's Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.