WASHINGTON — In the near future the noise you hear in your outside trash container might not be that pesky raccoon or the neighbor’s dog, but the FBI, looking for evidence to link you to some criminal or terrorist activity. That would be particularly true if you have had any contact knowingly or unknowingly, socially or otherwise with someone the bureau finds suspicious. If past experience is any guide, that could be nearly anyone.
According to recent news reports, officials of the national police force are preparing for another assault on our civil liberties. They are planning to give their agents more leeway to intrude into the lives of those they decide need further looking into by amending the domestic operations manual that sets out guidelines for conducting investigations. They would have enhanced ability to search not only household trash but also databases and could assign surveillance teams to scrutinize every aspect of American lives — shades of J. Edgar Hoover and his infamous Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO).
At the risk of overstating the case, that’s just plain scary.
Link that with reports of a mysterious FBI investigation into the activities of peace advocates and politically active labor organizers, and the past is not only prologue, it never went away. The Washington Post reported that the probe involving raids on seven homes and the issuance of subpoenas for 23 people last fall has triggered a major protest at the Justice Department. The investigation apparently is examining possible material support for Colombian and Palestinian groups designated as terrorists, the newspaper said.
There is no question that the bureau’s efforts to refocus its mission to counterterrorism have been largely successful. So much so that President Barack Obama has called off his search for a new FBI director and plans to seek a two-year extension of Robert Mueller’s 10-year term, which expires in September, despite the fact that the bureau’s surveillance tactics of advocacy groups and mosques have been severely criticized. An inspector general’s report four years ago said that the FBI had frequently misused so called national security letters that permit agents to obtain phone and other records without first receiving court permission.
Why the FBI would need an expansion of warrantless authority is unclear. There is enough existing machinery that allows agents and their supervisors to obtain expedited court permission for searches, especially in intelligence and national security cases where a special panel has been set up for that purpose.
During the Nixon administration when anti-Vietnam protest was at its height, a proposal by a minor White House functionary just out of college that would have suspended many of our civil liberties almost came to fruition. The plan was shelved only for the lack of a single signature. In one of that tumultuous period’s more ironic incidents, Hoover refused to sign off, relegating this dangerous undemocratic plan to a footnote in history.
Perhaps the same fate should be given this latest proposal.
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