READING THE new reports that the Pentagon is conducting surveillance of peaceful antiwar groups and protests, I feel like I’m having a bad ‘60s flashback.
But this time, I’m not seeing psychedelic lights and thinking I can fly. I’m remembering how the Defense Department aggressively infiltrated antiwar and civil rights groups during that era, spying and compiling files on more than 100,000 Americans -- and how J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI used every dirty trick in the “black bag operation” handbook to sabotage the antiwar and civil rights movements.
Now it looks like those ugly days of government paranoia and officially sanctioned lawbreaking might be making a comeback. A secret Defense Department database obtained by NBC News and the Washington Post this week indicates that Pentagon intelligence and local law enforcement agencies are using the guise of the war on terror to keep an eye on the constitutionally protected activities of antiwar activists.
The Pentagon appears to be doing so despite the existence of strict legal restrictions on the military maintaining records on domestic civilian political activity. According to NBC, the database includes “at least 20 references to U.S. citizens,” while other documents indicate that “vehicle descriptions” are also being noted and analyzed.
And it’s not just the Pentagon. Documents recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force has been recording the names and license plate numbers of peaceful antiwar protesters.
With apologies to Buffalo Springfield: There’s something happening here ... and what it is is painfully clear.
The Bush administration has a long and ignominious history of rhetorical intimidation, routinely equating dissent with a lack of patriotism and a lack of support for our troops. Now, however, it seems to be moving on to actual intimidation.
No one denies that in the post-9/11 world, the need for greater domestic intelligence gathering, processing and sharing is paramount.
Indeed, don’t we all wish someone in authority had been paying attention to the Phoenix memo and the one from FBI Agent Coleen Rowley before the 2001 attacks?
The national security agencies responsible for the Pentagon database were originally tasked with creating “a domestic law enforcement database that includes information related to potential terrorist threats.” This intelligence-gathering system is a tangle of acronyms -- including CIFA (Counterintelligence Field Activity), TALON (Threat and Local Observation Notice), and NORTHCOM (U.S. Northern Command) -- but they are all geared toward helping the government keep ahead of terrorists.
There is even a U.S. Army-operated 800 number for reporting suspicious activity, 1-800-CALL-SPY. I kid you not, dial it and you will hear: “You’ve reached the U.S. Army Call-Spy Hotline....Please leave a detailed message of the incident you wish to report. Your call is important. If you wish to be contacted, please leave your name and telephone number....”
But, as usual with this administration, these agencies now appear to be overreaching, moving away from identifying “possible terrorist pre-attack activities” and heading into the murky waters of spying on U.S. citizens who are doing nothing more than voicing their objections to U.S. policy.
President Bush and many of his closest associates have always positioned themselves as a counterpoint to the ‘60s counterculture. (Indeed, Bush was so detached from it that he once claimed he had no memory of antiwar activity at Yale during his time there -- even though the campus was a hotbed of student protest when he graduated in 1968.) And now his administration has adopted the worst domestic intelligence practices of the ‘60s establishment.
That’s why Congress needs to flex its oversight muscle -- and make sure that the tragic mistakes of the past are not repeated.
It wasn’t that long ago that Hoover’s notorious COINTELPRO program was illegally infiltrating Students for a Democratic Society and setting out to destroy the reputations and lives of “Negro radicals” such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Our government lied, cheated, harassed, intimidated, burglarized, vandalized, framed and spread false rumors -- to say nothing of keeping voluminous files on everyone from John Lennon to Lucille Ball -- in an effort to quash legitimate dissent against the Vietnam War and the racist practices of the South.
We can’t let it happen again.