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Steve Weissman: When The Feds Come Knocking

When the Feds Come Knocking

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Monday 23 August 2004

The FBI or local police ring your doorbell. They've come to ask a few questions, they say. Just part of a routine investigation or community outreach program.

You freak out. Perhaps you've publicly suggested that Mr. Bush's Iraqi mission was less than accomplished, or questioned which God Mr. Bush talks to, and in which tongue. Maybe you plan to attend an anti-war demonstration, just to see friends, of course. Worse, you get your news from a politically dubious website, or you've committed that most heinous crime, PWM - Protesting While Muslim. What should you do?

The question could become crucial to your well-being, and that of your like-minded friends. My personal, time-tested answer in a moment. But, first, here's what prompts my concern.

Last week, the New York Times reported that local FBI field offices have spent months canvassing their communities for potential "troublemakers." The G-men claim to have developed a list of people who might be planning - or have information about the possibility of - violent and disruptive acts at the Republican National Convention and other coming political events. The Feds - and local police with whom they work - call these lists of likely suspects "intelligence."

In Denver, four FBI agents and two local police use such lists to visit a local Quaker group that protests the war. Quakers are historically non-violent. It's part of their religious faith. So why had the six investigators taken so much time away from chasing real terrorists? Sarah Bardwell, a 21-year-old intern with the Quaker group, thought she sussed their cunning plan.

"The message I took from it," she told the Times,"was that they were trying to intimidate us into not going to any protests and to let us know that,"hey, we're watching you."?

Congressman John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, quickly agreed. In a letter to the Justice Department's Inspector General, he and two of his colleagues charged that the FBI visits looked like 'systematic political harassment and intimidation of legitimate antiwar protestors."

"This looks like it's much more about intimidation and coercion than about criminal conduct," added Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's not enough for the F.B.I. to say that there's the potential for criminal activity."

"That's not the legal threshold," he explained. If it were,"they could investigate anybody."

The G-Men and local police, it turns out, were acting as part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which shows us how Team Bush fights the War on Terror. Having used intelligence to drag the country into a preemptive war, they now want to preempt opposition to it. Why am I not surprised?

As a Vietnam anti-war protester and then an investigative journalist exposing undercover CIA operations against European and Third World governments, labor movements, and others who did not fit in with Washington's view of how the world should be run, I frequently saw how police and intelligence agencies gather, use, and make up intelligence. So, with all respect to my fellow civil libertarians, stifling protest and chilling free speech are only part of what the the lawmen are now doing.

The other part threatens us far more. Even before Congress seriously considers creating a domestic intelligence service, as some damned fools have suggested they do, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, FBI, and local cops are quietly building their own ad-hoc secret police. And like other politicized gumshoes throughout history, they will increasingly collect information on everyone they can, use it however they can, and put their hooks into as much of our private and political lives as we let them get away with.

For decades, F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover used carefully guarded bits of information to threaten and manipulate everyone from Presidents and Senators to Martin Luther King, Jr., Hollywood actors, left-wing activists, labor organizers, university professors, Black Panthers, and anti-war protesters.

Working with local and state "Red Squads," Hoover's Counterintelligence Programs, or COINTELPRO, used their intelligence to help provocateurs disrupt and discredit those the Director despised, creating much of the senseless violence the FBI claimed to oppose. With an unending War on Terror, the present secret police could become even more dangerous.

So, now that I've eased your fears, how should you respond when they come to call?

Simple. Just smile and refuse to let them in. Think of them as burglars coming to case your home or office, because everything they see and learn about you, your friends, and where you live and work could help an informant or provocateur know how to infiltrate your group or organize a break-in to get address books, membership records, and lists of financial contributors. An FBI provocateur I once knew and wrote about told me of a large check I had deposited years before.

If the FBI and police lack a warrant and have no reason to suspect that a crime is underway, they have absolutely no legal right to enter without your permission. Why give it? No matter how friendly they seem, you have nothing to gain by letting them in. Be polite, sure. But leave it at that.

Step outside to talk to them. Ask each of them for their identification. Take it in your hand - they hate that - and jot down all the information on it. Better yet, read the information into a small tape recorder, along with your play-by-play of what's going on. If you have a camera, ask to take their picture, or have someone else take your picture with them. Then, tell them you would love to talk to them, but only with your lawyer present. Would they care to make an appointment?

Back in the 1960s, the FBI came to visit my father at his office to warn him about all the trouble I was getting into at Berkeley. A conservative businessman, but a very protective parent, he invited them into his office, offered them coffee, and then brought in one of his partners, whom he introduced as his company lawyer. The pretense worked, and the G-Men quickly said good-bye. My father found it hilarious.

Not often, but sometimes, Poppa knows best. The Joint Terrorism Task Force, FBI, and local police intelligence units seriously threaten our freedom. But we win half the battle if, like dear old Dad, we learn to laugh as we fight back against them.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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