Rep. Conyers condemns Ashcroft 'war on freedom'

Defenders of the Bill of Rights charged this week that Attorney General John Ashcroft’s new FBI guidelines, announced May 30, open the door for wider FBI spying on law-abiding people, spreading fear and intimidation while doing nothing to curb terrorism.

“The administration’s continued defiance of constitutional safeguards seems to have no end in sight,” declared Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. “This decision decimates the Fourth Amendment.”

Conyers debunked Ashcroft’s plea that expanded FBI spying might have prevented the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. It was incompetence, not a lack of information, that prevented the FBI from “connecting the dots” before the attack, he said. He demanded that George W. Bush immediately halt Ashcroft’s unilateral “power grab,” even authorizing surveillance of people attending church. “Threatening the private practice of religion constitutes a war on freedom, not a war on terror,” he said.

“These guidelines send a message to the FBI and law enforcement: the holds are off,” said Kit Gage, director of the First Amendment Foundation (FAF). Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, she added, “we have seen the chilling of the right of protest. The Muslim community is already feeling the repression.”

The guidelines, Gage continued, dovetail with the repressive U.S.A. Patriot Act, rammed through Congress without hearings or debate amid the hysteria of the “war on terrorism.”

“The government is rewarding failure,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Washington office. “When the government fails – as it increasingly appears to have done before Sept. 11 – the Bush administration’s response is to give itself new powers rather than seriously investigating why the failures occurred.”

Restrictions on FBI surveillance and infiltration were imposed by Attorney General Edward Levi during the Ford administration. Hearings by Rep. Otis Pike (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) revealed widespread FBI spying, infiltration and dirty tricks against law-abiding people under its infamous COINTELPRO.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, was tailed by the FBI and his telephone bugged. On FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s orders, the FBI sent an anonymous poison pen letter to King calling him a “phony” and urging him to commit suicide.

The Levi guidelines placed worship services in churches, temples and mosques off limits to FBI surveillance. Now they are fair game for FBI spying and infiltration. “If the public is welcome, the FBI is welcome,” Ashcroft said.

The Levi guidelines required “probable cause” of criminal activity before an investigation was authorized. It also required clearance from FBI headquarters to engage in surveillance. But Ashcroft dropped both these safeguards, freeing every field office to initiate covert operations without a shred of evidence that targeted groups are engaged in unlawful behavior.

Emile Schepers, program director of the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights (CCDBR), cautioned that even under the Levi guidelines the FBI spied on Black elected officials and groups like the Puerto Rican independence movement. Nevertheless, he said, Ashcroft’s guidelines are a quantum leap in the level of FBI snooping. “We are asking for hearings before the Senate and House judiciary committees on these dangerous Ashcroft guidelines,” he said.

A coalition of civil liberties organizations is circulating a draft letter to Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and House Judiciary Chair James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), as well as to Conyers, urging full hearings on the Ashcroft guidelines. Ashcroft’s unilateral termination of the Levi guidelines, “raises matters of Constititutional authority that require immediate Congressional attention,” the letter states. “We do not believe that the Attorney General has the legal authority to pursue domestic spying.”

The letter voiced concern that the guidelines give the FBI authority to search through electronic databases without satisfying any legal standard or requiring any judicial review. The letter also warns that Ashcroft’s guidelines permit “unchecked surveillance of lawful religious and political activity in violation of the First Amendment, and that such surveillance will be targetted against Arab-Americans, Muslims and immigrants, among others.”

Groups signing the letter include FAF, ACLU, Electronic Privacy Information Center, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Arab American Institute, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Federation of American Scientists, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, The Multiracial Activist and the CCDBR.

Rightwing commentator William Safire charged in the June 3 edition of The New York Times that an efficient FBI “might well have prevented the catastrophe of Sept. 11.” He added, “To fabricate an alibi for his nonfeasance … Attorney General Ashcroft … has gutted guidelines put in place a generation ago to prevent the abuse of police power by the federal government. They have done this deed by executive fiat: no public discussion, no Congressional action, no judicial guidance.”

The FBI and CIA had the power to collect the intelligence, Safire charged, “but lacked the intellect to analyze the data the agencies collected … Thus we see the seizure of new powers of surveillance is a smokescreen to hide failure to use the old power.”

Safire warned that the FBI will use Ashcroft’s guidelines to “combine government surveillance reports, names on membership lists and ‘data mining’ by private snoops to create an instant dossier on law-abiding Americans.”

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