July 4 is the most explicitly patriotic of American holidays. This year just before the holiday, the California state office charged to counter terrorism was revealed to be collecting information about political and anti-war demonstrations that were nonetheless legal.
Those monitored included an animal rights group, and another expressing support for a 56-year-old woman facing federal trespassing charges in connection with her anti-Iraq war activities.
Federal law enforcement agencies were involved in collecting details. The information was written up in reports to the California State Office of Homeland Security.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, defends gathering data needed to protect security, but his administration has been quick to condemn excesses. The state security office quickly and publicly shifted onus for having tracked legitimate assemblies to an outside consulting company.
Political populism of both left and right is especially strongly established in our most populous state. Early in the 20th century, a relatively open environment free of traditional party machines aided progressive reformers. Later populist movements were more conservative, fueled by Richard Nixon’s anti-communist and Ronald Reagan’s anti-government messages. So far, populist Schwarzenegger combines elements of left and right, with mixed results.
Just about forty years ago, a very personal lesson was received concerning the intensity of emotions generated by direct-action politics. The colonel in command of the University of California-Los Angeles Army ROTC unit, where I was enlisted, summoned me to his office. Behind closed doors, he explained that the Pentagon was concerned about growing anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, especially but by no means exclusively at our sister Berkeley campus. He asked me to attend meetings of these groups, take down names and other information, and report back.
The proposal startled me. Fortunately, he phrased the matter as a request, not an order. Also fortunately, despite youth and inexperience, I had the sense not to turn him down flat. Rather, I stressed that the risks seemed to outweigh possible benefits, especially if the press found out what was going on, which could easily happen. After swearing me to secrecy, he dropped the matter.
In fairness, the colonel _ a good officer, decent man and World War II veteran _ simply reflected what was later revealed to be an extraordinarily widespread federal surveillance effort, which predated the outrages of the Nixon administration. With malicious irony, federal agencies were not only monitoring but also in some cases directly supporting radical student organizations. A particularly notorious example was secret CIA subsidy of the National Student Association.
The recent monitoring of activists has been condemned by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, along with a range of other politicians. When a state’s chief law enforcement officer acts as guardian of essential civil liberties, beneficiaries include the left, the right and the rest of us in between.
(Arthur I. Cyr is a professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (Palgrave Macmillan and NYU Press). E-mail acyr(at)carthage.edu.)