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With the Stroke of a Pen, the FBI Can Abuse Power Because of an Ashcroft Order

Elizabeth Rose,
Washington Legislative Office
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May 30, 2008

Six years ago today with a simple stroke of a pen U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft diminished our constitutional protections as he signed into existence new guidelines governing domestic spying by law enforcement. The result was that he and subsequent Attorneys General have been able to send G-men to “investigate” Americans who don’t agree with President Bush.Fortunately, Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott has taken a long overdue step to rid Americans of the Ashcroft approach to FBI investigation and return us to an older, better system. On May 20, Congressman Scott introduced a sense of the House resolution that would replace the Ashcroft guidelines on domestic spying with ones that actually protect American civil liberties.These guidelines, developed by Attorney General Edward Levi following the release of a report by the famed post-Watergate Church Committee, enable reasonable investigations of suspicious activity.The Ashcroft Guidelines announced May 30, 2002, swept away protections that had been in place since 1976, when the Church Committee detailed the disturbing extent to which the FBI had spied on Americans like Martin Luther King, former Navy officer Father Roy Bourgeois, and Holocaust surviving grandmother Edith Bell, who were peaceful protestors or advocates from across the political spectrum.As is so often the case, there is much to learn from History Repeated, an ACLU report released in 2002 and updated last year detailing The Dangers of Domestic Spying by Federal Law Enforcement. The report and its update were written by Marv Johnson, the respected and courageous ACLU first amendment counsel who died earlier this year due to complications from diabetes.”It appears that the FBI is using America’s fear of terrorism to dramatically increase its power in areas that have little to do with terrorism,” wrote Johnson, “Despite its inability to manage and analyze the information it already gathers, it now wants to gather more information free from the constraints previously imposed. This not only makes the FBI less effective in preventing terrorism, but it chills Americans’ freedom to associate and speak without the fear that their associations and speech will end up in an FBI database.”The House Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities (known as the Church Committee) also found the FBI had developed over 500,000 domestic intelligence files on Americans and domestic groups and in 1972 alone opened 65,000 new domestic intelligence files.More recently The Progressive described The New McCarthyism, including an FBI visit to an un-American college student’s apartment in part because she had a poster of George W. Bush with a noose that said “we hang on your every word.”We hope the next attorney general reinstates the Levi guidelines for the FBI. But it would be even better if Congress acts, because then no president and no attorney general would ever again be able to tell the FBI to spy on Americans without reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct.

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