Domestic spying: Be afraid. Be very afraid

The FBI, it seems, has been keeping an eye on any number of domestic
organizations that appear to have little to do with its stepped up
counterintelligence assignment — shades of Cointelpro, “Commie”
hunting, black-bag jobs, and a variety of other notorious activities
from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s that made the bureau the scourge of any
protester who might disagree with prevailing government policy in a
demonstrative fashion.

The difference, of course, is that the
word “terrorism” has been substituted for “communism” (at least in most
cases) as the stated reason for checking up on such groups as the
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an admittedly
pain-in-the-rear group who would discourage us from such violent
activity as milking cows. This comes at a time when the bureau’s
reputation for ferreting out truly dangerous folks who might be
plotting another assault on America is under attack from a half-dozen
quarters, including Congress, where former allies have been
disillusioned by one failure after another.

The bureau
reportedly has some 4,000 of its 11,000-plus agents now assigned to
seeking out domestic links to al Qaeda and other terrorist networks. So
why, it is proper to ask, is it concerned with the antics of
environmental extremists such as Greenpeace and anti-war demonstrators?
The bureau says that it has a duty to check into any group that might
be plotting some criminal activity. Fair enough, but as violent as some
of these groups and individuals get is to climb a tree and refuse to
come down or unfurl a banner where they shouldn’t.

misunderstand, the ’70s weren’t all that benign and the FBI did have
legitimate concerns when it came to the violent student groups such as
the anarchic Weather Underground many of whose members were extremely
bright, if intellectually twisted, and who alluded capture for years.
Groups such as the Symbanese Liberation Army of Patty Hearst infamy
were actually just made up of sociopaths who infiltrated the legitimate
antiwar movement as an excuse for other activities, including extortion
and robbery.

For that reason, the FBI’s current posture in
surveillance of seemingly nonthreatening organizations is not all bad.
The danger comes in wasting time and money and effort on groups that
are well-established with goals that have nothing to do with violent
terrorism. This policy merely engenders bad publicity, is
constitutionally questionable, and deters the bureau from the mission
of preventing another 9-11. In a town where nothing is a secret for
long, there is no hope of keeping such activity under wraps, nor should
there be. The bureau has struggled to overcome the “storm trooper”
image of the ’70s and to install reforms that would preclude the abuses
from recurring.

Granted the terrorists are a threat unlike any
the nation has ever confronted, given their faceless nature. But there
also are demands to maintaining an open society. Balancing the need to
protect that openness from external threats while not adopting internal
measures that injure the freedoms that have made it so great is always
delicate. Sometimes the cost of liberty is high, but it is necessary to
pay it. Few of the nation’s institutions should understand that better
than the FBI with its record of internal turmoil over the last century.

Americans are increasingly sensitive about the “Big Brother” intrusions
into their everyday living. Few complain about the need for stricter
security nearly everywhere they go. But to be subjected to warrantless
wiretaps and official fishing expeditions and other government spying
on every aspect of their existence, including what they read at the
library, is becoming almost an intolerable burden. That is especially
true when it comes against a backdrop of decreased privacy in every
normal endeavor of modern life.

Cointelpro, the compiling of
information about anyone who seemed to disagree with what J. Edgar
Hoover and his minions saw as the American way, was a disgrace the
bureau survived only by cleaning up its act. The break ins and other
activities, some clearly illegal and others highly questionable,
conducted by the FBI were career ending for any number of dedicated FBI
supervisors and agents, including Mark Felt, who recently admitted to
being the “Deep Throat” of Watergate fact and fiction. Felt was
convicted and subsequently pardoned for his part in illegal activities
in the name of national security.

The last thing the FBI wants
is a repeat of those activities. It can only undermine what is needed
to keep the true terrorists at bay. No organization needs to be more
diligent in monitoring itself to prevent the excesses.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)