Broad Coalition Urges FBI to Maintain Current Domestic Spying Guidelines; Says Any Weakening Would Threaten Constitutional Speech

March 6, 2002 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Joined by a broad and politically diverse coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union today urged Attorney General Ashcroft to retain current guidelines on domestic spying by the FBI, saying any relaxation would chill constitutionally protected political speech and divert resources from effective crime prevention.

“Nothing in the current guidelines prohibits law enforcement from preventing or investigating crime,” said Marvin Johnson, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “But history shows us that when the FBI is permitted witchhunts or fishing expeditions the basis of our national ideal of free speech is eroded. The guidelines, as they stand, must be preserved.”

At issue are a series of guidelines — implemented in the 1970s by the Department of Justice after revelations of illicit government harassment of lawful dissenters — that prevent the FBI from investigating or monitoring political, religious or social groups solely because of their beliefs. In recent months, reports have surfaced that Attorney General John Ashcroft is seeking to dramatically relax these obstacles to government abuse.

The coalition – which also includes groups such as the conservative Free Congress, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Arab-American Institute – highlighted its concerns today in a letter sent to the Attorney General.

The letter argued that the current guidelines are already very broad and establish a very low threshold of suspicion for initiating an investigation. The ACLU’s Johnson said that the guidelines only require a “reasonable indication” of wrongdoing to begin an investigation and do not, contrary to popular belief, require the FBI to wait until an actual crime has been committed before acting. Johnson also said that if the guidelines are loosened, allowing agents to engage in fishing expeditions, resources would be sapped from more effective law enforcement.

The ACLU pointed to the shameful treatment of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the hands of the FBI as one of the historical reasons for the current guidelines. During the turmoil of the civil rights era, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI engaged in an illicit, decade-long smear and harassment campaign against Dr. King. At one point in the Bureau’s scheme to discredit the civil rights leader, agents sent the fruits of their unlawful surveillance to Coretta Scott King in what many believe to be an attempt to provoke her husband’s suicide. The ACLU recently released an in-depth case study on King’s mistreatment at the hands of the government.

“If there’s anything to be learned from the tragedy of the FBI’s treatment of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Johnson said, “it’s that these guidelines must not be loosened in any way.”

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