It was the first day of fourth grade, and my Social Studies teacher told us it was time for the pledge of allegiance. All the students stood up: all but me.
I don’t recall if we’d had the pledge before that: if we did I don’t remember it. Whether it was an innovation, or whether I had simply taken it into my head at that point that I wasn’t going to salute the flag, isn’t clear to me: all I remember is the reaction of my teacher, Mr. Poli.
He was a young guy, or, at least, young compared to the mostly female teachers who predominated at my elementary school. He wore sporty ties, and his hair was longer than the obligatory crew-cut of that era. When I refused to stand, instead of sending me to the Principal’s office he asked me why. The question took me aback. The flag was a symbol of Authority, and, it seemed, of the stifling conformity I saw all around me: I couldn’t articulate this very well, although I tried, but Mr. Poli got the message, and he asked me to stay after class. All the kids sniggered: there was Raimondo acting up again! Now he was sure to be in plenty of trouble!
I expected a lecture, and worse: what I got was a pile of books. In my inchoate reply to his question of why, I had said “We aren’t free, we don’t live in a free country” (or words to that effect) – and the books were his answer, including a copy of the Constitution. He saw that I was interested in politics, and that – in my own adolescent, emotionally-driven, confused way – I was making a political protest.
He kept giving me books. I discovered the Founding Fathers, and their idea that America must be a republic: I found out we have a Constitution that protects us from the depredations of overweening government, and that the Bill of Rights is a mighty bulwark against the sort of tyranny I thought we lived under. He directed me to the school library, which carried the political magazines of the day: The New Republic, The Nation, National Review, and even American Opinion. I read them all, and subscribed to National Review. Under the influence of Frank S. Meyer I became a “fusionist” conservative, and, later, a libertarian – and Mr. Poli gets the credit or the blame for that. He taught me that inchoate emotional outbursts are not enough: that ideas matter, and that we do live in a free country – or, at least, we did at the time.
Mr. Poli was trying to tell me it’s okay to have opinions, and that the American system of government, rather than punishing you for having them, instead is designed to protect and defend your right to have them and express them. You’re not saluting a mere flag, he told me: you’re saluting the principle of freedom.
I believed him then. However, I’m not so sure about that anymore. Not when I have the FBI breathing down my neck.
Here you can read about the launching of the lawsuit by myself and Antiwar.com webmaster Eric Garris – with the invaluable assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union – against the FBI for failing to disclose documents relating to their surveillance of us and of this web site. We know they have such documents because one of them was released in redacted form in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by another party, which you can see here. I have written about this before, but at the time the issue wasn’t as timely as it apparently is today. Because the launching of the lawsuit comes at a moment when government surveillance and harassment of this administration’s opponents, as well as the news media, is making headlines.
We have three different scandals involving illegal government surveillance of political activists and journalists:
- The Tea Party IRS brouhaha, in which the IRS was apparently singling out conservative groups – anything with the words “tea party,” or “constitution” in the title was suspect – for extra scrutiny has the administration on the defensive. The IRS bureaucrat in charge of tax exempt organizations, one Lois Lerner, took the fifth amendment at a congressional hearing on the matter.
- The Associated Press phone records seizure – an extensive operation in which the government subpoenaed the phone records of five reporters, including home phones and fax lines, and 21 lines in five different offices, out of which 100 reporters regularly worked. The ostensible rationale for this was a story published by the AP which revealed a joint US-Saudi spy operation that reportedly prevented an updated version of the “Underwear bomb plot” from being launched in Yemen.
- Even worse is the Fox News spying scandal, in which Fox’s chief Washington correspondent, James Rosen, not only had his phone records seized, but also had his email account broken into by government agents. The authorities also secured the phone records of Fox’s Pentagon correspondent, their State Department office, their White House correspondent, and top Fox News executives. In short, the network hated by this administration was targeted from top to bottom. The ostensible reason: an innocuous story published by Fox News online that said US intelligence sources indicate North Korea will launch another round of missiles if increased sanctions are imposed.
What’s scary about the Fox News case is that the FBI’s affidavit alleges reporter Rosen is “at the very least, either as an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator,” a felon, for doing his job as a reporter – which is asking for information. To use the Espionage Act against a reporter in this manner is unprecedented – and I would say shocking, except that nothing shocks anymore, not in the present legal atmosphere of unlimited government power.
These stories are all making headlines today, but their roots go back to 2001, when Congress passed the “Patriot” Act without reading it, and the witch-hunt against Muslims and “radicals” was going full force.
As far as we know, the FBI “investigation” into Antiwar.com began in April of 2004. In a parody of what the general mentality was at that time, the FBI memo instructing regional offices to probe Antiwar.com raises the possibility that we are a “threat to National Security” and quite possibly “agents of a foreign power.” What is foreign here is the paranoia and Bizarro World craziness of this rationale for spying – foreign to America, that is, until September 11, 2001, when it became all too routine.
The “hook” that got us roped into this
fishing expedition “investigation” was my discovery of a “Terrorist Suspect List” issued by the FBI and posted on the web site of an Italian bank: another version was posted on the site of a Finnish bank. I discovered these documents in the course of researching a column, using Google. In short, I was doing what a writer does – utilizing a search engine in the course of my research, much as James Rosen was doing what all reporters do, which is asking questions.
In the eyes of the FBI, however, the act of researching publicly available documents was a potentially criminal act, sparking an investigation fueled by speculation that I might very well be engaged in threatening national security on behalf of a foreign power. Research and reporting – this is what the secrecy-obsessed US government now considers a criminal act. But it didn’t start with James Rosen – and it won’t end there, either.
The FBI memo goes on to state:
“There are several unanswered questions regarding www.antiwar.com. It describes itself as a nonprofit group that survives on generous contributions from its readers. Who are these contributors and what are the funds utilized for?”
Funds raised by Antiwar.com go to pay the expenses of running a news organization – salaries, web design, cyber-protection, etcetera – just as funds raised by Fox News, the New York Times, and Good Housekeeping go to pay the expenses incurred by those media outlets. There is no mystery here.
It’s simultaneously funny, and horrifying. The FBI was so busy tracking us, and spying on Fox News, that they simply didn’t have time to keep tabs on Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his brother Dzhokhar as they were planning the Boston Marathon bombing. In spite of a warning from the Russians about Tamerlan’s jihadist views, and his travel to Dagestan and Chechnya, the FBI wasn’t too concerned about this potential threat to national security – not when those dangerous radicals from Antiwar.com were running around loose!
Back when I was in the fourth grade, as the tumultuous 1960s were about to erupt all around me, the US government was engaged in extensive surveillance and disruption of supposedly “subversive” groups in this country: J. Edgar Hoover’s G-men were infiltrating and spying on the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, and other groups deemed a “threat.” The difference, however, is that they did it in secret: they slunk around in the dark, hoping no one would notice. Today, however, the government is doing these things openly, without any real fear of being caught. For example, the affidavit filed in the Fox News/James Rosen case details the shocking extent of the surveillance, and makes no bones – or apologies – about it. Similarly, there is a “we can get away with anything” tone in the FBI memo on Antiwar.com that throws caution to the winds, with only a perfunctory nod in the direction of the First and Fourth Amendments.
When Mr. Poli told me saluting the flag is really saluting the idea of freedom in America, I believed it. I’m not so sure I believe anymore.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
Our spring fundraising drive has picked up a bit, no doubt in response to the filing of our lawsuit against the FBI, and that’s good – but we’re still a long way from making our goal. Please help us in our fight against the destruction of our civil liberties. We need your help in our campaign to change the direction of American foreign policy: please make your tax-deductible donation today.
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).