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Against the Grain: The Right to Dissent

Professor Jim Wittebols
Professor Jim Wittebols

By Jim Wittebols

Buffalo, NY – The events of September 11 have inspired a backlash against attempts to rein in the FBI and CIA after their prolific spying on and infiltration of the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960's and 70's. As this month's segment from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting tells us, the conventional wisdom that the two agencies most abusive of freedom have been hamstrung in investigating terrorism is ludicrous.

To believe recent news reports, you'd think the days of FBI abuses and domestic spying ended in the 1970s when U.S. agencies were exposed for targeting law-abiding civil rights and peace groups. According to the same wisdom, that's when reformers tied the hands of intelligence agencies, leading to recent intelligence failures. The June 10th edition of US News refers to events of 30 years ago which "tied the bureau in knots." Newsweek on June 17th echoed that theme, "Since the mid-70s, the FBI has been strictly prohibited from collecting information on people or groups unless there was reasonable suspicion that they were involved in criminal activity."

But like so much conventional wisdom, it's just wrong and based on sanitized history. Domestic spying on law-abiding citizens has occurred in every decade since the supposed sweeping changes of the 70s. In the 1980s, FBI spying targeted a wide range of groups, including the Maryknoll Sisters, the United Auto Workers and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference -- all simply for opposing U.S. policy. In May of this year, the Anti-Defamation League lost a lawsuit growing out of charges that the group, in cooperation with the FBI, spied on activists in the 1990s. A long list of activitists and groups involved in Middle East affairs, including FAIR, were targeted in that episode.

Some of the incidents briefly mentioned in this piece deserve elaboration beyond the scope of this segment. The plain fact of the matter is that anyone who protested against U.S. intervention in Central America would be labeled under today's law as aiding terrorists. Among those spied on for their involvement in El Salvador in the 1980s were a group of nuns in Texas. An FBI agent assigned to monitor their work was a one point told by his superiors to seduce one of the nuns as a way of discovering what they were really up to. The only reason I can tell you this is because the FBI agent refused to follow this order and quit.

Last fall's attacks were a reminder that our security priorities have more to do with the whims of a religious attorney general and the needs of the defense industry than with genuine security and peace. What has been revealed lately demonstrates that many in the lower rungs of these agencies were doing their jobs and that all these new powers to spy and detain are a power grab by the folks who failed to properly act on what those foot soldiers were telling them. It is appalling that the media continue to report on these charades of reform and the invention of the new agency as a serious way to lessen the likelihood of further attacks.

If there were a genuinely critical journalism going on right now, the resignation or firing of John Ashcroft would be a fait accompli. Instead, we have he and others who wrap themselves in the flag while their policies are making a mockery of freedom.

Ben Franklin really nailed it when he said those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither. Rights are like muscles, if you don't use them, they atrophy. And it is those who have been in the forefront of trying to expose the excesses and thuggery of U.S. foreign policy who have tended to suffer for exercising their rights. I would argue that it is exactly this kind of work--pointing out how our foreign policy generates resentment and hatred--which will ultimately go a lot farther in preventing terrorism than any repressive law, missile defense system or brutalizing of yet another foreign population.

In this respect, the permanent war we have been promised is a self-fulfilling prophecy as each new bombing raid hatches more potential terrorists. Until the media and a critical mass of officeholders take that to heart, we are on a slide toward a long period of war and human degradation.

Against the Grain, I'm Jim Wittebols.

Media Analyst Jim Wittebols is a professor of Communications Studies at Niagara University.