Attorney General John Ashcroft has just issued new guidelines for FBI surveillance and investigations, which threaten to take us back to the days of J.Edgar Hoover. He has now virtually given absolute power to FBI field office directors to investigate anybody and everybody at their own discretion.

He has removed the concept of “probable cause” as a requirement for initiating some kinds of surveillance of organizations and individuals, and he has authorized FBI surveillance of all public demonstrations and meetings. This guts the “Levi Guidelines” created by the Ford administration after the Church Committee hearings in the 1970s revealed the full horror of decades of FBI abuses under COINTELPRO, and long before that.

In his short tenure in office, Ashcroft has already shown a tendency to out-Hoover Hoover, to sweep away checks and balances developed to prevent government attacks on First Amendment and due process rights.

The USA Patriot Act, Ashcroft’s creation, was rammed through Congress in October 2001 without any of the normal Congressional hearings or public discussion. Ashcroft and Bush let it be known that anyone who dared to oppose it would be seen as abetting terrorism, and thus would likely come under scrutiny themselves. One of the most dangerous aspects of the USA Patriot Act is its marginalization of judicial review over repressive actions by the government, a direct attack on the idea of checks and balances in the Constitution.

These new guidelines are a serious step in the same direction, as the idea that people exercising First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, press, religion and assembly can not be investigated without probable cause is utterly discarded. If Ashcroft and Bush are allowed to go on in this fashion, the end product is political repression worse than anything Hoover or McCarthy were able to inflict.

In the 1950s, for example, immigrants accused of “subversive” affiliations were processed for deportation but, if their countries of origin would not take them back, were able to continue to live and work in the United States. Under the USA Patriot Act, such immigrants can be permanently imprisoned without trial.

Press accounts have tended to misrepresent what, exactly, is the danger. Lest we forget, here are some of the issues that arose with the FBI before.

Use of agents-provocateurs. The FBI, from the Palmer Raids through COINTELPRO, did not confine itself to infiltrating organizations for the purpose of collecting political information. It often had its undercover operatives act as agents-provocateurs who attempted to goad or entice activists into illegal activity, so that they could then be prosecuted, and/or disrupt or discredit the organization in the eyes of the public.

Fomenting violent conflict between dissident groups. The Hoover FBI worked hard to get different dissident organizations to fight with each other by spreading rumors and putting out false communications.

Getting people fired from their jobs. A favorite tactic, not stopped by the Levi Guidelines, was for the FBI to go and talk to the employer of a political dissident, not to get information but to intimidate the employer and get the employee fired. This method was also used to get people denied opportunities such as college admission.

Destabilizing personal lives of dissidents. The FBI has been known to amass real or imaginary salacious personal information about political dissidents and then to use this information to try to coerce them into stopping their political activities.

Framing dissidents for serious crimes. The FBI concocted criminal cases against people it wanted to see behind bars for political reasons. Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt spent 25 years in jail because of such an intrigue and was only released when the case against him was found to be deliberately cooked up by the FBI.

Chilling of dissent. The idea that FBI agents are everywhere, that the person sitting next to you in a meeting or in church could be secretly developing a government file on you that could be used to deny you a government job (or even a private sector job), that somehow the FBI (or the IRS, or the INS) might “come after” you and your family because of the ideas you express or the company you keep, was one of the things that lent the post World War II “McCarthyism” period its special oppressive atmosphere.

The announcement of these new non-rules for FBI surveillance are calculated to chill dissent and to block the growth of vocal, public opposition to the Bush administration’s policies. We have seen the wolf, now we have to act. The most urgent thing is to develop a new strategy for a much higher-level struggle against this looming oppression.

Emile Schepers is the program director of the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights.
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