The Rev. Raymond Payne is hard to profile as anything other than a figure fit for a Norman Rockwell tableau.
Payne is pastor of the Mead Memorial United Methodist Church in the tiny town of Russell, Ky. - a community he describes as a place where "you sit on your front porch and wave to the people you know who walk by." Russell is "not in any way, shape or form a hotbed of radicalism," the minister says.
Nor is Payne a radical or even a political activist. He is 53 and says he has never been involved in politics or attended a protest or been arrested. He's been married to the same woman for more than three decades.
It was the occasion of his 31st wedding anniversary that plunged Payne into the scary post-9/11 world of those citizens who have come to find out that their innocent activities, heretofore protected under the First Amendment, somehow make them suspect. Payne and his wife, on an anniversary trip to Canada last October, were stopped, searched and questioned by Canadian border authorities who sought to find out just what the couple was doing crossing at Niagara Falls.
"They put me in what I can only describe as an interrogation room," Payne recalls. "Where was I from? Where was I born? Was I a citizen of the United States? They asked us the same sort of questions, over and over again."
The Canadians explained the stop was necessary because the FBI had opened a file on Payne in 2001.
This was news to Payne. He does not know whether it is true or, if it is, why such a dossier would exist. He suspects it might be because of some books about Islam he ordered over the Internet after 9/11. Payne says the books were for study groups he organized at church due to his parishioners' curiosity about a religion that was so foreign to them, yet suddenly had touched their lives.
Payne is one of hundreds of individuals and groups now seeking to learn, through theFreedom of Information Act, what, if anything, the FBI's got on them. The request is coordinated by the American Civil Liberties Union, which says it has gotten word that 1,173 pages of documents about the ACLU itself have been amassed in FBI files since 2001.
The few files already released show, the ACLU says, that the bureau monitored mainstream anti-war groups that planned demonstrations to coincide with the Republican and Democratic national conventions last summer. From one such supposedly investigative file, we learn the contents of a public Web site maintained by the group United for Peace and Justice. The FBI believed it was sufficiently consequential to note that the group claims President George W. Bush launched two wars and is responsible for two tax cuts that help the wealthy.
The bureau, which isn't supposed to track political groups or individuals unless there is reason to suspect criminal activity, is officially silent about this long paper trail. Officials say, however, that there were genuine threats to "disrupt" the conventions. As for how it could amass more than 1,000 documents about the ACLU, the feds suggest that most of the file is paper that merely notes the group's name in some routine context.
Here is where hope and doubt collide.
The FBI, hapless before 9/11, has been given expanded powers since. Yet, it remains protective of its reputation for having ceased political snooping after the J. Edgar Hoover era. "If they didn't have anything to hide, why don't they just turn over the documents?" asks Ann Beeson of the ACLU. The ACLU and the Justice Department are in a legal duel over how fast the files must be handed over.
Payne says he worries about what it all means for the larger war on terror. If public resources are devoted to monitoring people like himself, is there a greater likelihood that a genuine threat might go unaddressed? If these thousands of pages were amassed for mere bureaucratic exercise, then we must be alarmed at the wheel-spinning waste. For this was chronic at the FBI before 9/11. It was supposed to have been cured by now.
© 2005 Newsday Inc.