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.)