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From John Adams' Alien and Sedition Acts to the Cold War and Joseph McCarthy, civil liberties and national security have had a delicate and troubled relationship in American history. Notorious among these is the case of the domestic surveillance program run by the FBI between 1956 and 1971 (after the censure of Joseph McCarthy by the Senate) under the name COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program). COINTELPRO was a secret FBI program designed to monitor and "neutralize" domestic groups deemed by the FBI to be a danger to national security. Such groups included anti-war groups and civil rights groups and individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr. and even Eleanor Roosevelt.

Some fear that something like COINTELPRO may again be at hand. There are undercover agents infiltrating peaceful protests in America. Pretending to be political activists, local law enforcement officials are monitoring the activities of advocacy and protest groups based on what one judge calls those organizationsí "political philosophies and conduct protected under the First Amendment." The tactic has come about as a result of the relaxation of guidelines first put into place after the COINTELPRO scandal investigation. Learn more about the history and the new guidelines below.

  • J. Edgar Hoover and Dissent:

    FBI director Hoover had long placed the domestic battle against Communism in the forefront of the FBI's concerns. How he defined the threat illustrates the philosophy behind the COINTELPRO and previous surveillance programs. Below is an excerpt of Hoover's 1958 publication MASTERS OF DECEIT: THE STORY OF COMMUNISM IN AMERICA AND HOW TO FIGHT IT:

    Thus the Party, through its specialized and immediate demands, is able to gain entree into various groups and create favorable working conditions for future revolutionary action. Very quickly, for example:

    • a veterans' meeting endorses "peace."
    • a nationality festival passes a resolution for "peace."
    • a youth affair favors "peace."
    • a neighborhood group comes out for "peace."
    • a women's rally fights for "peace."
    Whatever its composition, the group, once under communist control, is switched to the Party line. The feigned interest in legitimate demands is merely a trap.

    Even holidays are used to enhance the Party's aims. For example, the Daily Worker once headlined a story "Mothers' Day to Be Marked by Peace Tables..." Postcards should be distributed on Mother's Day, the story continued, "declaring the deepest need of all American mothers to be a ban on A and H-bombs..."

  • COINTELPRO and The Church Commission:

    The domestic surveillance programs of COINTELPRO were only brought to light in early 1970s after a Senate Committee was created to investigate the FBI and the involvement of other intelligence agencies in political repression. The Committee was named for its Chairman, Idaho Senator Frank Church. It's findings were voluminous and, to many, worrying:

    The resolution creating this Committee placed greatest emphasis on whether intelligence activities threaten the "rights of American citizens."

    The critical question before the Committee was to determine how the fundamental liberties of the people can be maintained in the course of the Government's effort to protect their security. The delicate balance between these basic goals of our system of government is often difficult to strike, but it can, and must, be achieved. We reject the view that the traditional American principles of justice and fair play have no place in our struggle against the enemies of freedom. Moreover, our investigation has established that the targets of intelligence activity have ranged far beyond persons who could properly be characterized as enemies of freedom and have extended to a wide array of citizens engaging in lawful activity.

    Under the aegis of COINTELPRO, the FBI kept files on a great number of Americans and investigated the NAACP for 25 years. The FBI admitted that it had burglarized political groups to gain information on their activities.

  • The Attorney General's Guidelines

    As a result of the Church Commission's findings then Attorney General Edward Levi drew up a series of guidelines to govern domestic investigations. Key among these rules was that investigations could only be brought where "specific and articulable facts" indicated criminal activity. The guidelines also attemped to make sure that the abuses of COINTELPRO were not repeated by requiring that such investigations be reported to the attorney general.

  • The Revised Guidelines:

    Levi's guidelines were modified by several subsequent attorney generals. However, it was not until Attorney General John Ashcroft substantially altered them in the wake of September 11 that civil rights and privacy advocates began a vocal campaign to return to the post-COINTELPRO guidelines. In announcing his revisions, Attorney General Ashcroft cited new terror concerns:

    FBI men and women in the field are frustrated because many of our own internal restrictions have hampered our ability to fight terrorism. The current investigative guidelines have contributed to that frustration. In many instances, the guidelines bar FBI field agents from taking the initiative to detect and prevent future terrorist acts unless the FBI learns of possible criminal activity from external sources. -- Attorney General John Ashcroft, May 30, 2002
    The revised guidelines reduce the requirements of a clear indication of criminal activity and allow for longer "preliminary" investigations without such proof of criminal intent. And "for the purpose of detecting or preventing terrorist activities, the FBI is authorized to visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public."

  • The Ongoing Debate:

    Of course the revision of the Attorney General's guidelines is a matter of vigorous debate. Read arguments from both sides below and then speak your mind on our message boards.

    The new FBI will be able to investigate Americans who pose a threat to national security -- and that's a good thing. While Muslim terrorists penetrate our borders with surface-to-air missiles and make every air traveler a potential target, and while INS screw-ups show daily that we have no borders and no real ability to keep any of our enemies out, a surreal battle is taking place within the ranks of our hostage population itself. The debate is whether Attorney General John Ashcroft and the FBI should have given agents license to keep an eye on suspected terrorists and their ideological supporters if they have not yet blown up a plane.
    --"COINTELPRO's overdue return," David Horowitz,, June 4, 2002

    The problem that the Levi guidelines were intended to solve — and that the new guidelines will exacerbate — relates to the purpose for which the public information is gathered and utilized, not so much with the privacy of the information itself... Magnifying the problem is the fact that the intelligence gathering activities may now be directed at political meetings — particularly unpopular political meetings. Imagine FBI agents taking notes on a pastor's sermon, a rabbi's lecture, a priest's homily — and noting the names and license plate numbers of attendees. Your "Greenpeace" bumper sticker, publicly displayed, becomes sufficient cause for the FBI to open a file on you. --Mark D. Rasch, J.D., is a former head of the Justice Department's computer crime unit.

    Sources: The Federal Bureau of Investigation; The Attorney General of the United States FOIA Reading Room; MASTERS OF DECEIT: THE STORY OF COMMUNISM IN AMERICA AND HOW TO FIGHT IT, by J. Edgar Hoover, 1958; The Church Committee Reports INTELLIGENCE ACTIVITIES AND THE RIGHTS OF AMERICANS.

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