Those who harbor nostalgic longings for the rebellious Sixties may be pleased to learn the Reagan administration is reviving one of the most obnoxious features of the era -– government spying on political dissidents –- yet I find it distressing. A decade ago, after the shocking exposure of FBI and CIA abuses, I thought at least another generation would pass before these agencies dared to intrude again upon the rights of American citizens. I was mistaken.
Recent events strongly suggest the FBI and perhaps other federal agencies are once again collecting names and making lists, planting informants and watching organizations, opening mail and burglarizing offices. The reforms adopted ten years ago to protect dissidents from federal surveillance have been tossed aside by the administration, permitting public officials to assert they are merely enforcing the law when asked about the following incidents.
In Utica, Michigan, a sixty-three-year-old occupational therapist named Marianna Wells received a telephone call from an FBI agent. “Our government is not friendly with the Nicaraguan government,” he informed her. The agent wanted to know if Wells was in contact with officials of the Sandinista regime. She told him to buzz off. “So,” the agent said, “I’ll report that you refuse to talk to the FBI?”
“I had picked cotton in Nicaragua in 1984 with volunteers from the International Brigade,” she said. “It was very hot and very dusty –- there was no rain -– and we picked cotton in the hot sun. I was concerned about U.S. policy, and I wanted to help out the Nicaraguans.
“I was annoyed,” Wells recalled. “I considered it harassment.”
In New York City a Columbia University student named Jeff returned from Nicaragua and discovered two friends had been questioned by a putative representative of the State Department. He had implied Jeff was doing something illegal. Jeff was, in fact, working as an infirmary nurse at a language school run by Americans. The agent told one friend he had been linked to Jeff through an old mailing address. Someone was scrutinizing Jeff’s mail.
In Birmingham, Alabama, a college professor, who studied in Jordan as a Fulbright scholar and is now active in organizing for peace in the Middle East, fears that her mail is being read by the government, because items related to the Middle East often arrive opened or resealed. An FBI agent wanted to question her, and he explained that the FBI was concerned about internal security and wanted to protect her from “running into any difficulties.” The agent’s questions, she said, were ridiculous.
In San Francisco the FBI circulated to other agencies a confidential intelligence memorandum on the Livermore Action Group under a heading implying continuing surveillance both of it and similar organizations: Subject: US/Demonstrations by Anti-Nuclear Group. The information was attributed to a source “of known reliability,” someone who was obviously an FBI informant within the group, because the report included meticulous details on arrangements for an upcoming political demonstration, including travel plans.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, three basement offices at the Old Cambridge Baptist Church were obviously burglarized –- doors were broken open, desk drawers and file cabinets left ajar -– but nothing of value was taken, not even a purse with cash and credit cards. The offices belonged to the Central American Solidarity Association, the New England Central America Network and the New Institute for Central America (NICA), which operates the language school in Nicaragua where Jeff worked.
On the same night a similar break-in occurred at the First Congregational Church of Cambridge. The offices of the University Christian Movement of New England were ransacked. A month later the Old Cambridge Baptist Church was struck a second time. Again nothing was stolen.
“We don’t know who broke into the church,” Garrett Brown of NICA said, “but you have to sit down and ask two questions: Who profits from this sort of thing? Who’s done it before? On both you come up with the same answer. The U.S. government…… I’m convinced the purpose is to intimidate people, to show that the government can break in to your home or headquarters any time it wants to. If their intention is to scare the shit out of people, it’s pretty effective. This had that effect on some people, but in our case it didn’t work.”
In Washington D.C. the headquarters of Sojourners, an ecumenical peace group organizing resistance to Reagan’s war against Nicaragua, may also have been visited by government investigators. Early one Saturday morning last fall a staff worker stopped by the office to pick up some materials for a trip and discovered four men in business suits standing around the rear entrance peering into the windows. When he approached, one of them asked if this was Sojourners’ office. “We were coming to visit,” the man explained. “We don’t get many visitors at five forty-five in the morning,” the staff worker replied.
The men hurriedly departed in a car with the license number G-306. When Sojourners complained to police, they were told that since no laws had been broken the police would not disclose the identity of the owner of the car. Sojourners assumes the early morning visitors were working for Uncle Sam.
In Miami, Florida, a freelance journalist named Edward Haase was returning from two months in Nicaragua when an FBI agent detained him at the airport for questioning – and seized his address book and notes, including a five-page list of organizations concerned about Central America. After the agent questioned Haase and defended the FBI’s right to search for “subversive literature,” he made photocopies of all of Haase’s papers. The agent remarked that Haase “sure had a lot of contacts.”
These scattered incidents are among dozens reported from around the country by political activists, most of whom oppose the Reagan administration’s foreign policy. Some are left-wing activists; others are opponents of the nuclear-arms buildup now under way; many are church people who have concluded Reagan’s war against Nicaragua is immoral.
Their stories convey to me a chilling sense of déjà vu. These incidents recall the complaints I heard in the Sixties, when antiwar activists, black militants and New Left radicals insisted the government was spying on them -– infiltrating their ranks; opening their mail; bugging their telephones; burglarizing their headquarters; and disrupting their organizations with agents provocateurs. I was younger then –- and more innocent. Like most reporters, I tended to dismiss these complaints as paranoia, the self-important fantasies of political ideologues who wanted to believe they were more effective than they really were. Of course, their accusations turned out to be true. As the evidence of scandalously abusive behavior in government later emerged, every charge was proven true – and greater misdeeds were revealed.
Today we have not yet returned to that level of government abuse. But I think the preconditions are in place.
When the new attorney general, Edwin Meese, held his first press conference, he was asked about the FBI’s surveillance of political dissidents. Without discussing specific cases, Meese assured the press that government investigators were following the guidelines. “That means on these kinds of things,” he said, “there must be sufficient indication of criminal activity which would……warrant their investigation. There has to be some link to criminal activity.”
When Marianna Wells’ senator, Don Riegle, complained about FBI harassment, an assistant director of the FBI replied: “The contact with Ms. Wells was an attempt to meet our responsibilities under the Attorney General’s guidelines for FBI foreign-intelligence collection…and you may be sure [it] was not an illegal act.”
When the two churches in Boston were burglarized last fall, the Boston FBI office denied responsibility for the break-ins, but it declined to reply when asked if groups active in Nicaragua were targets of surveillance.
When Edward Haase sued the FBI for seizing and copying his private papers, the government improbably asserted that all of the names and addresses it had collected had not been disseminated through its intelligence network -– as though it would make Haase feel better.
The government’s opaque non-answers are standard in these episodes –- and are not very different from what the FBI said in the Sixties when it was accused of domestic spying. As Meese suggested, the public is supposed to assume that if the FBI is watching someone the purpose of the investigation is not political but criminal. Are these groups and individuals suspected of criminal activity or of concealing knowledge of future crimes? The FBI won’t say. It primly refuses to discuss the details of “ongoing investigations” (a rule often ignored when agents leak favorable tidbits about celebrated cases).
The official silence leaves the targets of surveillance in the shadows, neither accused nor vindicated, and unable to force a clear answer out of the government. Potential criminal charges range from innocuous offenses, like failure to register as an agent of a foreign government, to serious felonies, like smuggling weapons or plotting terrorism. Of course, in recent years the most serious acts of political terrorism in the United States have come from the right wing: the assassination of Chilean exile Orlando Letelier and his American assistant, Ronni Moffitt, in Washington and the bombing of abortion clinics across the country. (When a bomb exploded in the Capitol in 1983, many assumed left-wing radicals were responsible, but those responsible remain unidentified.) Yet the apparent absence of left-wing violence hasn’t prevented the Reagan administration from worrying about it.
The fear of domestic terrorism is at the root of the growing paranoia in Washington. Nothing has happened, but administration officials are preparing themselves, as though they long for the challenge. Last year the administration proposed an extraordinary measure that would have allowed the secretary of state to designate countries and organizations as terrorist, thereby criminalizing anyone who by word or deed supported them. Clearly unconstitutional, it got nowhere in Congress. This year the important public buildings of the city are being surrounded with concrete barriers in anticipation of car-bomb attacks that have yet to materialize. The Secret Service has even suggested closing Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. Our Fortress President.
The same sort of bunker mentality seized Johnson and Nixon during the Vietnam War, but at least they had plenty of observable turmoil to scare them. In the Sixties, I finally grasped, it was not dissidents who were paranoid but officials – leaders at the highest levels, frightened by the fury of political dissent swirling across the nation. They resolved to suppress it. Now the government is getting scared again.
Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights –- the organization representing Haase and others who have been harassed by the FBI -– points out that these FBI investigations of terrorism never lead to prosecution, which suggests that they are merely fishing expeditions intended to intimidate and perhaps damage reputations, like the political witch hunts of the Fifties. “In the Reagan Eighties,” Ratner said, “the administration is substituting the word terrorist for Communist. FBI visits accuse activists of terrorism to their families, neighbors and employers. FBI abuse is……national in scope. In none of these incidents is there any evidence of illegal conduct, much less terrorist activities. In no case has any indictment or prosecution resulted from investigation.”
Aside from anecdotal evidence, there is no way to measure the extent of government spying, but there is one indicator that suggests how fearful the Reagan administration has become. The number of secret warrants obtained for electronic surveillance in foreign-intelligence cases has risen rapidly in the last four years. A secret court created in 1978 grants warrants to the FBI and other intelligence agencies: the details, including probable cause, are never revealed, but the court has never rejected an application. A bug can be planted on a KGB spy or in a foreign embassy or on an American citizen suspected of aiding another government. In Jimmy Carter’s last year in office there were 322 secret warrants; last year the Reagan administration obtained 635.
The surveillance of domestic political groups does not require a warrant at all. In 1981 the Reagan administration set about changing the rules, making it much easier for the FBI and the CIA to target citizens for investigation. Civil-liberties groups hollered, but the general public didn’t seem to grasp the significance of the new guidelines. Reagan revived intelligence-collection techniques of questionable constitutionality, some of them notorious in the Sixties. Among other things, agents may -– with the approval of the director of the FBI or the attorney general –- conduct physical searches, better known as black-bag jobs. That is, government agents are authorized to break into your home in the middle of the night and rummage through your private records.
I can’t prove the government is now using these techniques against its political opposition, of course. Neither can the folks who think their mail has been opened, nor can the groups whose offices have been ransacked. It may all be a coincidence. The FBI won’t say. It never discusses ongoing investigations.
The present situation, as I said, contains the ugly potential for the revival of the worst of the Sixties. A dramatic incident –- an explosive event confirming the deepest fears of administration officials -– is all that is required to trigger the impulse to spy more aggressively on troublemakers. Most observers in Washington will probably think I am exaggerating the threat. They will insist that the director of the FBI, William H. Webster, is a man of probity and restraint, sensitive to the rights of citizens. No doubt he is, but I am not reassured. Remember, when the government trampled on political freedom in the Sixties, Ramsey Clark, a sensitive civil libertarian, was attorney general. To abuse the Constitution, it requires not evil men but powerful men who are frightened.
For the administration any sort of political action would do as an excuse for indiscriminate spying or widespread harassment -– from the acts of civil disobedience threatened by a network of church groups and secular peace organizations (which has already collected 55,000 Pledges of Resistance from Americans opposed to Reagan’s war in Central America) to the realization of left-wing terrorism Washington has long feared. It is ridiculous, of course, to imagine pacifist church volunteers blowing up the White House, but government intelligence officials have never been good at making obvious distinctions. In troubled times anyone who is opposed to the policies of the government is seen as a threat, and as in the Sixties, the government’s investigators would be tempted -– indeed ordered –- to move against them.
History need not repeat itself, of course, but the American past teaches a recurring lesson. When the government makes war abroad, the Bill of Rights is trashed at home. In the Civil War, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus; in World War I, Wilson jailed Socialists; in World War II, FDR forced Japanese Americans into concentration camps.
As the opposition to the president’s policies grows stronger, the temptation for the administration to suppress its enemies will grow stronger as well. When citizens organize to fight the belligerent foreign policy of their own country, the government reflexively labels them disloyal – and then goes looking for the evidence to prove it. Reagan’s war against Nicaragua will create many victims, and one of them will be the U.S. Constitution.