Just Like in the Bad Old Days, the Government Is Cracking Down on Dissent

Are we returning to the bad old days of spying on peaceful Americans?

In February, the most ominous challenge to political freedom from the administration of George W. Bush occurred in Des Moines, Iowa, when federal prosecutors issued grand jury subpoenas to Drake University, a private institution; the student chapter of the National Lawyers Guild; and four members of pacifist groups who had attended on university grounds a National Lawyers Guild meeting, “Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home!”

A judge issued a gag order preventing Drake officials from speaking about the subpoena. When word of this order spread, Iowa’s Democratic and Republican senators criticized the government’s action and the subpoenas were hastily withdrawn. The prosecutor then lamely announced that his only interest had been in prosecuting trespassing, without explaining why such a trivial issue needed a grand jury inquiry. Such actions and the threat to freedom and privacy suggest that the government is once again resorting to spying on Americans who disagree with its policies.

Bush and his campaign advisers see this policy as a vital strategy in the presidential campaign. Ever since 9/11 the Bush White House has created a sense of urgency that has led many voters to believe that spying on American citizens aids the war against terror. Coupled with the restrictive measures in the Patriot Act passed in 2001, this is a perilous threat to a free citizenry.

For example, a leaked FBI memo sent to all police agencies last October reveals that the FBI has been amassing data on protesters and advising police to keep close tabs on them. Spying on dissidents has become official policy since police departments were advised to report suspicious behavior to its counterterrorism units. The memo “appears to offer the first corroboration of a coordinated, nationwide effort to collect evidence regarding demonstrations,” said the New York Times. There is, then, reason to believe that the FBI is reviving its infamous legacy of spying on American citizens.

We’ve been through this dangerous game before with calamitous results. Hysteria about Bolshevism in Russia led to the Red Scare, when Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, conducted warrantless raids and deported “Red” aliens after World War I.

Other “scares” followed. From 1938 to 1945 Rep. Martin Dies of Texas, no defender of civil liberties, chaired the House Un-American Activities Committee and pursued domestic “enemies.” With the onset of the Cold War, genuine apprehensions about Soviet power and the widespread fears it engendered prepared the political ground for the witch hunts of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. Led by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, that subcommittee — and its emulators in the states — set out to punish “disloyal” teachers, professors, actors, writers, journalists and government employees.

All this while Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon did not find the political courage to resist the vigilante spirit abroad in the country. Nor were the four presidents able or willing to put a stop to the FBI’s powerful J. Edgar Hoover, who was convinced that communists were behind the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and anti-Vietnam war protesters. With concerns about terrorism running high, the practice of targeting legal, peaceful antiwar dissenters is hardly surprising.

Recent political espionage has been directed toward critics in Denver, Colorado Springs, Fresno, Atlanta and Chicago. In Hernando County, Fla., peaceful pickets carrying antiwar signs were put under watch and their private lives scrutinized, which led the St. Petersburg Times to say, rightly, that the police actions revealed nothing less than an “intolerance for political dissent.” In March 2003 Albuquerque police officers battled demonstrators in the streets after antiwar marchers refused to disperse.

In Austin, an Army counterintelligence agent and Army lawyers attended out of uniform a meeting approved by the University of Texas Law School on “Islam and the Law: The Question of Sexism?” A few days later, Army agents asked the school for a videotape of the conference and a list of those attending. Following an outcry, an embarrassed Army apologized and said it would provide “refresher training on the limits of Army counterintelligence investigative jurisdiction” to its agents.

In the recent antiwar march in New York City many demonstrators carried signs, “Dissent is Patriotic.” So is fighting back in the courts, as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild in Albuquerque have done in a civil rights lawsuit charging the city and its police department with violations of free speech and excessive violence.

Americans have learned a lot from past episodes of suppressing dissent, but their political leaders need to start challenging the assumption that Americans critical of their government’s policies cannot be trusted.

After all, it’s their country, too.

Copyright 2004 reprinted from History News Service with permission of the author.

Author: Murray Polner

Murray Polner has written for The New York Times, Washington Monthly, Commonweal, The Nation, The American Conservative, Columbia Journalism Review, Newsday, and other publications.