MONTREAL – Sarah Bardwell did not get the names of the four FBI agents and two police officers who questioned her and her roommates late on the afternoon of July 22 on the front porch of their house in Denver. "We asked them for their names and they said they wouldn’t give us their names because we wouldn’t give them ours."
"They told us they were doing preemptive investigations into possible I think their exact words were ‘terrorists, anarchists and murderers.’ Then they specified [it was about people] that may be planning actions for the RNC or the DNC," she says in a telephone interview from her house.
The Republican National Convention (RNC) will be held later this month to officially nominate U.S. President George W. Bush as candidate for November’s presidential election. The Democratic National Convention (DNC) took place in July, nominating Senator John Kerry.
After about 25 minutes of a mixture of aggressive and then chummy questioning of Bardwell and her roommates, the six officers left, after warning the group that they would be making "more intrusive efforts" to find the information they were seeking.
According to media reports this week, Bardwell is one of possibly dozens of protesters that FBI agents have questioned in recent weeks, an act that has provoked peals of protest countrywide from those who say the visits violate the freedoms guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.
They also raise the question of whether the Bush administration is creating a "climate of fear" that is seeping beyond the Muslim and Arab communities that were scrutinized by security agencies after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Yes, says the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "I think [the visits to protesters] definitely contributes to a climate of fear and intimidation," says Emily Whitfield, the New York-based group’s director of media relations.
News of the interrogations come weeks before the Republican Party is slated to officially nominate Bush at the RNC in New York City, an event that protesters have been planning for months to disrupt. Authorities have been plotting their security response for just as long, with the New York Police Department, for example, working with the Secret Service for the past 18 months.
On Tuesday, three members of Congress wrote to the Justice Department asking it to probe the FBI visits, calling them "systematic political harassment and intimidation of legitimate antiwar protests," reported the New York Times.
In a statement, FBI Assistant Director Cassandra M. Chandler responded that the agency "is not monitoring groups or interviewing individuals unless we receive intelligence that such individuals or groups may be planning violent and disruptive criminal activity or have knowledge of such activity."
"The FBI conducted interviews, within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution, in order to determine the validity of the threat information," she added.
But Bardwell, an intern at the American Friends Service Committee who calls herself a social justice activist says neither she nor her roommates were planning to attend either convention. In February 2003, Bardwell helped organize local antiwar protests.
"We hadn’t even been following it; I didn’t even know when it was going to happen. I think [the FBI is] basically just justifying violating people’s First Amendment rights," she adds.
The ACLU warned of a climate of fear following the 9/11 attacks after the FBI in 2001 and 2002 questioned 8,000 Muslims and Arabs in the United States. "All public accounts indicate that the questioning did not yield apprehension of a single terrorist," said the group in a statement.
Two weeks ago, the ACLU said it was joining up with lawyers around the country to provide free legal advice to any Muslim or Arab-Americans caught up in a new round of questioning by the FBI, announced earlier this year.
"These types of FBI tactics are counterproductive. They produce fear and resentment, not results," said Dalia Hashad, the ACLU’s Arab, Muslim and South Asian advocate.
"Fear has two sides of the same coin," says James Brochin, a lawyer and teacher who has studied periods in U.S. history when authorities curtailed civil liberties.
"One is the fear of communists [in the 1950s crackdown known as "McCarthyism"] or terrorism. And the other side is the fear of one’s neighbor and the fear of the consequences of saying stuff out loud that would sound like you’re sympathetic to these threatening elements. So it’s both the fear of communism [or terrorism] and the fear of our own government," adds Brochin.
"Those two things, both, result in a loss of freedom. One is a self-censorship and the other is either enforcement of existing laws or creation of new laws that actually do result in intrusion into our privacy or create situations where loyalty oaths either metaphoric or actual are imposed on the general public," he says.
According to Samuel Walker, a professor in the department of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, "there is [today] a general climate of fear and there are specific abuses" by authorities against civil liberties.
He singles out provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, passed in response to the 9/11 attacks, which permit security agencies to access medical or library records without a subpoena or a warrant.
But Walker stresses that "the Bush administration has been challenged in every conceivable forum … there are more cases than I can keep track of. The Supreme Court decisions are very important," he tells IPS.
In June the court ruled that foreign prisoners of Washington’s "war on terrorism" held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have the right to contest their detention in Federal Court and that U.S. citizens held as "enemy combatants" were entitled to full due-process rights.
The ACLU launched another challenge Thursday, arguing the administration should not be able to use secret evidence to defend against a suit from a number of groups that oppose the PATRIOT Act’s powers to access private records and to use "national security letters" to obtain personal information from Internet service providers and other businesses without judicial oversight.
Walker is optimistic that the attack on civil liberties could be quickly stopped if Kerry were to win the Nov. 2 election.
Whitfield says the public is joining ACLU’s fight against the administration’s squeezing of civil liberties since 9/11. While the number of new members to the group increased by fewer than 1,000 people from 1999 to 2000, it soared by more than 14,000 from 2000 to 2001, by more than 19,000 the following year and by more than 52,000 from 2002 to 2003.
During the same period, donations to ACLU via the World Wide Web jumped nearly 10-fold, from more than $187,000 in 1999 to $1.6 million in 2003, she added.
Yet a poll released Wednesday by the Council on Foreign Relations [pdf] found that almost twice as many U.S. citizens were concerned the government had not done enough to guarantee their safety than were worried about undue restrictions on civil liberties.
Bardwell also believes the administration has a duty to protect citizens. "The government obviously has an obligation to protect people. That’s very clear to me. But I think what’s happening is not protection for the people of the United States; I think it’s protection of a corrupt government."