Civil Liberties Defended
As the FBI goes knocking prior to the Republican National Convention, the ACLU fights back.
Thursday, August 26, 2004
Sarah Bardwell did not get the names of the four FBI agents and two police officers who questioned her and her roommates late on the afternoon of July 22 on the front porch of their house in Denver. ‘’We asked them for their names and they said they wouldn’t give us their names because we wouldn’t give them ours.
‘’They told us they were doing pre-emptive investigations into possible—I think their exact words were ‘terrorists, anarchists and murderers.’ Then they specified [it was about people] that may be planning actions for the RNC or the DNC,’’ she said in a telephone interview from her house.
After about 25 minutes of a mixture of aggressive and then
chummy questioning of Bardwell and her roommates, the six
officers left, after warning the group that they would be
making ‘’more intrusive efforts’’ to find the information they
‘These types of FBI tactics are counterproductive. They produce fear and resentment, not results.’
—Dalia Hashad, ACLU
According to media reports this week, Bardwell is one of possibly dozens of protesters who FBI agents have questioned in recent weeks, an act that has provoked peals of protest country-wide from those who say the visits violate the freedoms guaranteed in the US Constitution.
They also raise the question of whether the Bush administration is creating a ‘’climate of fear’’ that is seeping beyond the Muslim and Arab communities that were scrutinized by security agencies after the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Yes, says the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
‘’I think [visiting protesters] definitely contributes to a climate of fear and intimidation,’’ says ACLU spokeswoman Emily Whitfield.
News of the interrogations come weeks before the Republican Party is slated to officially nominate Bush at the National Convention in New York City, an event that protesters have been planning for months to disrupt. Authorities have been plotting their security response for just as long.
On Tuesday, Aug. 23, three members of Congress wrote to the Justice Department asking it to probe the FBI visits, calling them ‘’systematic political harassment and intimidation of legitimate anti-war protests,’’ reported The New York Times. FBI Assistant Director Cassandra M. Chandler responded that the agency ‘’is not monitoring groups or interviewing individuals unless we receive intelligence that such individuals or groups may be planning violent and disruptive criminal activity or have knowledge of such activity.
‘’The FBI conducted interviews, within the bounds of the US Constitution, in order to determine the validity of the threat information,’’ she said.
But Bardwell, an intern at the American Friends Service Committee, who calls herself a social justice activist, says neither she nor her roommates were planning to attend either convention. In Feb. 2003, Bardwell helped organize local anti-war protests.
‘’We hadn’t even been following it; I didn’t even know when it was going to happen. I think [the FBI is] basically just justifying violating people’s First Amendment rights.”
The ACLU warned of a climate of fear following the 9/11 attacks after the FBI in 2001 and 2002 questioned 8,000 Muslims and Arabs in the United States.
‘’All public accounts indicate that the questioning did not yield apprehension of a single terrorist,’’ the organization said.
Two weeks ago, the ACLU said it was joining up with lawyers around the country to provide free legal advice to any Muslim or Arab-Americans caught up in a new round of questioning by the FBI announced earlier this year.
“These types of FBI tactics are counterproductive. They produce fear and resentment, not results,’’ said Dalia Hashad, the ACLU’s Arab, Muslim and South Asian advocate.
According to Samuel Walker, a professor in the department of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, ‘’there is a general climate of fear and there are specific abuses’’ by authorities against civil liberties.
He singles out provisions of the USA Patriot Act, passed in response to the 9/11 attacks, which permit security agencies to access medical or library records without a subpoena or a warrant.
But Walker stresses that ‘’the Bush administration has been challenged in every conceivable forum…there are more cases than I can keep track of. The Supreme Court decisions are very important.”
In June the court ruled that foreign prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have the right to contest their detention in Federal Court, and that US citizens held as ‘’enemy combatants’’ were entitled to full due-process rights.
The ACLU launched another challenge last Thursday, Aug. 19, arguing that the administration should not be able to use secret evidence to defend against a suit from a number of groups that oppose the Patriot Act’s powers to access private records, and to use ‘’national security letters’’ to obtain personal information from Internet service providers and other businesses without judicial oversight.
Walker is optimistic that the attack on civil liberties could be quickly stopped if Kerry were to win the Nov. 2 election.
Whitfield says the public is joining the ACLU’s fight against the administration’s squeezing of civil liberties since 9/11. While the number of new members to the group increased by fewer than 1,000 people from 1999 to 2000, it soared by more than 14,000 from 2000 to 2001, by more than 19,000 the following year, and by more than 52,000 from 2002 to 2003.
During the same period, donations to ACLU via the World Wide Web jumped nearly 10-fold, from more than $187,000 in 1999 to $1.6 million in 2003.
Yet a poll released last week by the Council on Foreign Relations found almost twice as many US citizens were concerned that the government had not done enough to guarantee their safety than were worried about undue restrictions on civil liberties.
Bardwell also believes the administration has a duty to protect citizens. “The government obviously has an obligation to protect people. That’s very clear to me. But I think what’s happening is not protection for the people of the United States; I think it’s protection of a corrupt government.’’
Marty Logan is a reporter for the Inter Press Service.