""Trust Us, We're the Government"" - ACLU Looks at Domestic Surveillance and the Need to Watch the Watchers in Times of Crisis

October 10, 2001

Statement of Laura W. Murphy, Director
ACLU Washington National Office

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

WASHINGTON -- American history is replete with examples of law enforcement and intelligence organizations responding to a national crisis or social upheaval by asking Congress for greater freedom in how they can spy on American citizens and immigrants. Generally, these requests come with the soothing promise: "Trust us, we're the government; we'll only use these powers against the bad guys."

The Bush Administration's defense of its new, and frighteningly broad, anti-terrorism bill is also being couched in exactly these terms. Unfortunately, history has also shown us that, more often that not, these expansions of domestic surveillance powers are used to violate the freedoms guaranteed to the American public by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. 

When reviewing the Bush anti-terrorism legislation, we must examine each of the surveillance measures in light of past experiences that demonstrate the necessity of having sufficient judicial review to ensure that someone is watching the watchers. 

Many of the provisions also enhance the power of the FBI to spy on Americans for "intelligence" as opposed to criminal purposes. Other "information sharing" provisions direct highly personal information about Americans into the hands of the CIA and the Department of Defense, without meaningful restrictions on how it is used or re-distributed. 

The historical record makes clear that unchecked trust in the government to spy on its citizens responsibly is misplaced. The following examples prove the point. 

COINTELPRO: Created out of fear of growing social dissidence and operating under a veil of secrecy, the FBI's infamous Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), created under Director J. Edgar Hoover, harassed and spied on a vast number of peaceful social protest groups. Few members of any of the groups targeted by COINTELPRO were ever charged with a crime. 

The high-profile Church Committee in 1976 essentially accused the FBI of thought policing. Referring to the activities of COINTELPRO, the Committee concluded that, "The Government has often undertaken the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when those beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts on behalf of a hostile foreign power. ? Groups and individuals have been harassed and disrupted because of their political views and their lifestyles." 

The vast majority of the organizations and individuals targeted for surveillance by the FBI and COINTELPRO were actually avowedly non-violent. One of the most prominent public figures investigated by the FBI and COINTELPRO was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 

J. Edgar Hoover kept a detailed and shadowy collection of dossiers on many of the civil rights era's greatest leaders and it was under Hoover's authority that an illegally obtained tape, purporting to document King's extramarital sex life, was sent to Coretta Scott King. 

In 1986, a federal court determined that COINTELPRO was responsible for at least 204 burglaries by FBI agents, the use of 1,300 informants, the theft of 12,600 documents, 20,000 illegal wiretap days and 12,000 bug days. 

STOP INDEX: The FBI also famously abused its authority during the Vietnam War, operating what it called a "stop index." The Bureau used its National Crime Information Center - comprised of a number of computerized databases - to track and monitor the activities of law-abiding citizens opposed to American involvement in the war. 

CONUS: Possibly the most frightening abuse of power by a government actor involved the military's cold war era CONUS (Continental United States) program which expanded its operations in the 1950s and 1960s. In total violation of the American tradition of preventing the armed forces from engaging in law enforcement and domestic surveillance, the U.S. military ran this cloak-and-dagger operation designed to monitor civilian political activity and dissent. CONUS collected and maintained files on upwards of 100,000 political activists and used undercover operatives recruited from the Army to infiltrate these activist groups and steal confidential information and files for distribution to federal, state and local governments. 

In 1972, Justice Douglas, dissenting in a Supreme Court decision in favor of CONUS, said, "This case is cancer in our body politic." 

OPERATION CHAOS: During the social maelstrom of the 1960s, the Agency initiated "Operation Chaos" under which it spied on as many as 7,000 Americans involved in the peace movement. In clear violation of its statutory mission to co-ordinate only foreign intelligence operations, the CIA itself ventured into the domestic spying business and created its own version of COINTELPRO. 

FILEGATE: In 1993-94, the Clinton White House improperly received thousands of documents from the FBI, including private and confidential information about members of the first Bush White House. The incident revived fears of partisan political maneuvering in America using the resources of federal police and intelligence agencies. 

CISPES: In January of 1988, the full extent of an FBI investigation into the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) began to come to light. Harkening back to the worst excesses of the COINTELPRO operations, the FBI's own files seem to suggest that the investigation of this group as a terrorist organization had been initiated solely on political grounds. 

Strong evidence suggests that CISPES was targeted for investigation because of its ideological opposition to then-President Reagan's already controversial foreign policy in Latin America. The FBI persisted in an intensive six-month investigation of CISPES in which it often reported the group's activities to the Department of Justice in a prejudicial and biased manner. 

The entire CISPES mess finally concluded in a short memorandum - released a full 33 months after the operation was initiated - detailing the FBI's finding that no justification for the investigation had ever existed in the first place. 

In light of the September 11th attacks, the lessons of these historical examples of inappropriate and unconstitutional domestic surveillance are all the more relevant. The current administration would do well to remember its predecessors' breaches of the public trust. We cannot let the FBI engage again in a COINTELPRO-like operation against law-abiding American citizens. We cannot let the CIA step outside its own charter and begin surveillance inside American borders as it has in the past. And, we cannot let the military again engage in domestic espionage. 

If Congress really wishes to earn America's trust, it should ensure that its anti-terrorism legislation contain all the essential checks and balances to prevent the political or ideological surveillance of law-abiding citizens.

Statistics image