Recent history screams that we are fast becoming a nation of suspects, in which vocal dissent is a legal cause for monitoring. Bill Johnson, columnist, Rocky Mountain News, July 31, 2004
Last year, I became the only writer in Village Voice history to appear at the American Conservative Union's annual Political Action Conference. The ACU is the largest configuration of conservatives in the country. I was assigned to a panel on the Patriot Act, and joining me in attacking John Ashcroft's bypassing of the Bill of Rights was conservative libertarian Bob Barr.
Speaking of privacy, I discovered this year that I was on the Right Wing Watch of the liberal not always libertarian People for the American Way. Years ago, that organization gave me a lifetime achievement award for my civil liberties work. But now I'd become a suspect right-winger.
It turned out I had been the subject of mechanical McCarthyism solely because I'd been a panelist at the American Conservative Union. There was no explanation of why I was there. After I called, I was assured that I'd be removed from the watch list. But I may be back on because I profoundly disagree with PFAW's ardent support of bullyer Chuck Schumer and his Senate Democratic colleagues' filibustering judicial nominees who would otherwise have a majority vote on the floor to be confirmed.
The Constitution, the Federalist Papers, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay all stated that an up-or-down vote by the majority of the Senate is the constitutional requirement.
Bob Barr and I have been in contact since that session because of the accelerating raids on the Constitution by this administration. No longer in Congress, he works with the American Conservative Union and consults on privacy matters with the ACLU. He is emblematic of the strong coalition after 9/11 between liberal civil liberties activists and conservative libertarians in and out of Congress. Barr is still on People for the American Way's Right Wing Watch.
In an August issue of a leading Web site of commentary on legal issues (findlaw.com), Bob Barr confronts FBI director Robert Mueller, who has morphed into J. Edgar Hoover. Like Joe Hill, Hoover has never died. Barr's headline is: "The FBI's Pre-Emptive Interrogation of 'Possible' Demonstrators: Chilling Political Speech."
Before this year's Democratic and Republican conventions, FBI agents, with the enthusiastic approval of John Ashcroft, engaged in intimidating visits to watch-listed people considered likely to protest at the conventions. As an editorial in the Aug. 19 Denver Post accurately charged: "They have gone about their mission aggressively, with little regard for basic rights and without evidence that the people they are trying to dissuade are actually intending any criminal activity."
This is part of a continuing targeting by the FBI of those whom Joe McCarthy used to call "subversives." In early 2002, John Ashcroft discarded the guidelines for FBI "intelligence" expeditions, covert and public, that were instituted after the bureau's COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence) program of the '50s and '60s that eviscerated the First and Fourth Amendments in the Bill of Rights.
When Ashcroft unleashed the FBI, former U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter, who prosecuted the horrific Abner Louima police brutality case, said (New York Times, May 31) that now "law enforcement authorities could conduct investigations that [have] a chilling effect on entirely appropriate lawful expressions of political beliefs, the free exercise of religion, and the freedom of assembly."
As to what's to come, Bob Barr, on findlaw.com, writes: "To make matters worse, the Department of Justice blessed the FBI strategy in its own memo suggesting that no First Amendment concerns are raised by these [pre-emptive] interrogations." (Emphasis added.)
Barr adds, "The memo came from the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Council" the same office that wrote the memorandums justifying the torture of "detainees" in the war on terrorism. That memo actually had a grave effect on the prisoners in Abu Ghraib as well as others being held in our interrogation centers.
The Department of Justice memo sending forth the FBI on its visits to potential agitators, Bob Barr adds, concluded that "even if, hypothetically, such activities did raise concerns, any 'chilling' effect would be 'quite minimal' and would be far outweighed by the overriding public interest in maintaining 'order.'"
Then Barr notes mordantly: "The FBI, seemingly, takes an absurdly narrow view of what kind of tactics would, in fact, chill speech. ... For instance, Joe Parris, an FBI spokesman, told The New York Times that, because 'no one was dragged from their homes and put under bright lights,' interviews of potential demonstrators are not chilling.
"So," says Barr, "now we know the administration's new First Amendment standard: So long as the government agents don't 'drag you from your home' and interrogate you 'under bright lights,' you have nothing to complain or worry about ... such tactics usher in an era of intolerance and fear that has no place in American politics."
Obviously, this is not just the First Amendment standard of FBI agents. It's set by FBI director Robert Mueller, who serves in the Justice Department under John Ashcroft, who serves under George W. Bush.
On Aug. 28, the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, John Ashcroft, who took an oath to defend the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, told The New York Times that "suggestions that the [FBI pre-emptive] interviews were aimed at stifling protests were an 'outrageous distortion.'"
Hearken to George Orwell: "If large numbers of people believe in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them."
Are you an inconvenient minority?
Published with the permission of Nat Hentoff. May be linked to but not republished without Hentoff's permission. Originally posted on The Village Voice Web site on Sept. 17. Hentoff is a contributing editor to Editor & Publisher and also writes for The Washington Times.