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Domestic spying on rise?

WITH THE FIRST anniversary of the invasion of Iraq last week and the nationwide demonstrations, not to mention the coming presidential convention, there is growing apprehension among civil libertarians and ordinary Americans that the FBI is once again dredging up its infamous J. Edgar Hoover legacy of spying on political dissenters who are exercising their constitutional rights.


Last October the FBI notified local police agencies to keep close tabs on people and groups opposed to the war and occupation of Iraq. Since it is obvious that the Bush administration loves playing the 9/11 card for political purposes, it is no surprise that efforts are being made to squelch as much domestic dissension as it can.

We've been through this wave of repression before in the 20th century with calamitous results, when government snoopers developed a vast spying apparatus during the '20s, McCarthyite '50s, and the '60s, '70s, and '80s against nonviolent dissenters who dared challenge the wisdom of US foreign policies. And although the FBI (and others in the government) deny they are hindering free speech or assembly -- declaring that they are only concerned with deterring potential criminals and terrorists -- their October memorandum nevertheless asked some 17,000 local and state police agencies to keep a very close eye on antiwar demonstrations and report allegedly suspicious activity to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force.

The risk now is that the "war against terrorism" has given policing agents on all levels greater latitude to play ideological sentry. In Chicago, for example, the Sun-Times reported in February that undercover cops have been spying on different groups, including the American Friends Service Committee. Political espionage has occurred in Denver, Colorado Springs, Colo., Austin, Texas, Fresno, Calif., Atlanta, and probably many other places.

In New York City in February 2003, tens of thousands of antiwar marchers were forced into holding pens, assaulted with pepper sprays, and many of the arrested compelled by the police to reveal their political leanings and histories of earlier protests. And in Hernando County, Fla., peaceful antiwar pickets carrying signs were put under surveillance and their personal lives investigated, which led the St. Petersburg Times to properly characterize the police response as "intolerance for political dissent."

Take Jeanne Pahls, a fourth-grade teacher in Albuquerque, one of the founders of a local antiwar group, Stop the War Machine. In March 2003, before the invasion, members of the group organized a demonstration. When they noticed a white pickup cab being used to videotape the affair, she complained to the police and was told by a detective that it belonged to its criminal investigations unit.

After the war began, hundreds of Albuquerque marchers went out on the streets and refused to disperse, claiming the right to conduct peaceful protests. Police wearing gas masks, Kevlar helmets, and carrying automatic weapons fired tear gas and pepper balls at marchers bearing signs reading "Peace Not War" and "We're Nonviolent, How About You?" Now, she says, she and others worry their planning sessions may be infiltrated with police spies and their actions perceived as illegal.

And yet, Stop the War Machine and other local groups planned a large and peaceful demonstration for Saturday, a year after the war began. Pahls says proudly and properly, "We have a right and a duty to speak up. It's a matter of conscience."

Perhaps the most serious challenge thus far to political freedom occurred recently in Des Moines, when federal prosecutors issued grand-jury subpoenas to the student chapter of the National Lawyers Guild at Drake University, demanding its members' names. Students and the guild had conducted a meeting on university grounds late in 2003 dubbed, "Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard home!"

In addition, a court order prevented the university from speaking publicly about the subpoena it received. The prosecutor's office explained later that its only concern was with trespassing, although why this required a grand-jury investigation defies reason.

The line between freedom and security can be terribly thin. But when Americans are intimidated into genuflecting before official policies they loathe rather than being allowed the freedom to express "an open mind and a brave reliance upon free discussion," as the late deeply respected American jurist Learned Hand once put it, then we are in very, very deep trouble.

Murray Polner, author of "No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran," wrote this column for Newsday.

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