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Civil libertarians decry police intelligence squads

Scripps Howard News Service/August 24, 2004

-The federal government is pushing police departments across the country to rebuild intelligence units to track terrorist activities. But civil libertarians say the squads are actually monitoring the activities of anti-war organizations and other legitimate protesters in thinly disguised efforts to suppress dissent at a time when many Americans are questioning the war in Iraq.

Christopher Pyle, a professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College in Vermont, said the U.S. government is repeating mistakes made during the Vietnam war, when the Nixon administration secretly gathered personal information on more than 1 million people in hopes of stifling dissent.

Pyle, a former U.S. Army intelligence agent who blew the whistle on the secret program in nationally televised Senate hearings on the Vietnam-era activities in 1970, said the federal government is hampering its own efforts to root out al Qaeda cells in the United States by concentrating on political dissenters.

"I don't know of one member of al Qaeda who has been found to have been active in political groups in the United States," said Pyle. He said the focus on domestic dissenters is diverting resources from al Qaeda sleeper cells and other dangerous terrorist threats to the United States.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the federal government has persuaded state and local governments to rebuild anti-terrorism squads. Under the Joint Terrorism Task Force program, provisions of the Patriot Act permit the CIA and FBI to train police in handling national security issues, and the investigations by local police are supervised and coordinated by the local special FBI agent in charge. The FBI and local police assigned to the task force operations are expressly forbidden to tell the press any information about their activities.

But some of what local and state police are doing clearly goes beyond terrorist activities, and there have been cases where local police have begun monitoring the activities of local peace groups, a Quaker committee in Chicago, and animal rights activists campaigning to stop people from wearing fur coats.

In San Diego, an undercover agent working for the Fresno Sheriff's Department infiltrated the antiwar group Peace Fresno, a low-key organization composed of local social workers and teachers.

Members of Peace Fresno learned they had been infiltrated only when the agent, Aaron Kilner, died in a motorcycle accident and his picture appeared with his obituary in the newspaper, listing his occupation as a member of the counter-terrorism squad with the sheriff's department. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer agreed in June to a request by the American Civil Liberties Union to conduct an investigation of the secret surveillance.

"These are not terrorists. This is a Mom and Apple Pie group that stands on street corners with signs. They're non-violent in every sense," said Mark Schlosberg, who is overseeing the ACLU's investigation of California police practices.

Other recent investigations have involved the activities of demonstrators planning to attend the Republican and Democratic conventions and, in Missouri, resulted in three men being subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury July 29 - the day they had planned to be in Boston.

Attorney General John Ashcroft defends the probes of protesters, and said FBI agents aren't violating the rights of those who are dissenting.

"We interviewed a very limited number of people that we believed were either participating in a plan to criminally and violently disrupt the Democratic National Convention or individuals that might have known something about that plan," he said. "They were a very few individuals. There are 280 million or more people in the United States of America, whose freedoms we are protecting," Ashcroft said.

M. David Gelfand, a professor of constitutional law at Tulane University, said police are overreacting by cracking down on peace groups. "It's an extreme overreaction. They're trying to kill a roach with a bulldozer," he said.

David Kairys, a law professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, said the police activities are aimed at quieting political dissent rather than investigating terrorists.

Kairys said the United States has had a hard time dealing with civil liberties in times of emergencies and war, adding that the government often has difficulty distinguishing those who differ with its policies from those who represent a real danger to America.

"There's a whole array of historical examples we're not too proud of," Kairys said.

In the last century, the Russian Revolution of 1917 precipitated a backlash against Bolsheviks in the United States, when Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer rounded up more than 3,000 anarchists and held them without charges on the belief they were plotting a revolution in the United States. Some 248 were deported to Russia.

The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 prompted a backlash against Japanese Americans living in California, who were put into concentration camps for the duration of the war on the suspicion they could be spies and signal to Japanese naval ships along the west coast.

Kairys said wartime puts First Amendment rights to their most stringent tests. "Civil liberties only works when there are crucial issues to be decided," he said. "You've got to let the dissidents speak."


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