Mass struggle needed to push back government spying

After nearly three years of the bloody U.S. occupation of Iraq, anti-war sentiment is spreading while Bush’s popularity rates are low. The military strategy is failing and the Bush administration is being assailed on all sides. Along with its Iraq strategy, certain domestic programs are coming under intense public scrutiny.

A threat to the U.S. government? March 19, 2005, Los Angeles

Photo: Raymond White

The Bush administration’s domestic spying programs recently have been at the center of a firestorm of controversy. It was revealed in December 2005 that the Pentagon is spying on anti-war organizations and demonstrations, labeling them as threats to national security. Days after that story appeared, the Bush administration came under fire for authorizing the National Security Agency to place wiretaps on U.S. residents without warrants.

The government’s conduct is outrageous and infringes on hard-won civil rights. But government spying on progressive organizations and individuals is nothing new. It has been a fundamental feature of the U.S. government’s campaign of intimidation against peoples’ movements for decades.

Beyond trying to disrupt activist organizations, it is aimed at terrorizing wide sectors of the U.S. working class from taking part in demonstrations and political actions that could challenge the dictatorship of the rich.

Anti-war protests deemed ‘threats’

On Dec. 14, 2005, NBC news revealed that the Department of Defense compiled a confidential 400-page document that lists four dozen anti-war and antirecruitment meetings or protests as “threat incidents.” The document originated from a Pentagon database. One of the targeted protests was the major anti-war action on March 19, 2005, organized by the ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) in Los Angeles, California.

The day after the story was published, the Partnership for Civil Justice, a civil rights litigation firm, filed a Freedom of Information Act request on behalf of the ANSWER Coalition and the National Lawyers Guild. The request demands information maintained by the Pentagon on anti-war protests and political activists and leaders.

Carl Messineo, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard and Brian Becker of the ANSWER Coalition

Photo: Bill Hackwell

Department of Defense officials responded to reports of the database by saying that the Pentagon has a right to maintain information to help protect military installations. Although the March 19, 2005, protest was a legal demonstration with appropriate location permits and occurred nowhere near a military installation, it was deemed a “threat incident” in the Pentagon’s database.

“What military installation is at Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles?” inquired Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, attorney and co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice and co-chair of the NLG Mass Defense Committee. “The ‘threat’ that the Pentagon is protecting against is a powerful mass movement of opposition to the U.S. war drive.”

ANSWER Coalition national coordinator Brian Becker agrees: “The Pentagon and other government agencies are routinely violating the First Amendment rights of people in the United States who are coming together to demand an end to the criminal war and occupation in Iraq. No amount of government intimidation can stop the anti-war movement, now that opposition to the war has become a majority sentiment.”

History of government spying

Spying on ANSWER and other anti-war organizations is a continuation of long-time government spying on political activists. When the government faces a political crisis, as it does with the Iraq war, domestic surveillance becomes a ubiquitous policing tool. Even when there is no crisis, the government and its police spy on political activists and others. That is a primary function of police in a capitalist society.

For years, the government openly and limitlessly conducted surveillance on U.S. residents to brutally silence dissent and spread fear among those interested in becoming involved with working-class and anti-war struggles. One of the most well-known programs directed at “exposing, disrupting, misdirecting, discrediting or otherwise neutralizing” political movements and their leaders was the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO—Counter Intelligence Program.

COINTELPRO was designed by former FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. It was the FBI’s main domestic espionage operation between 1956 and 1971. In reality, COINTELPRO began many years earlier. The name may have been different, but the government worked through federal and city police to undermine activists as far back as World War I. Its focus shifted to communist and other revolutionary groups from the 1920s onward.

COINTELPRO’s repressive and divisive tactics contributed to the disintegration of many political organizations, including the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party. FBI agents framed revolutionary activists for crimes, including murders, which they did not commit. They also coaxed people to commit crimes to provide a pretext for their arrest. There were countless break-ins and incidents of harassment, psychological warfare and extrajudicial violence against political activists. Agents tried to get Martin Luther King to commit suicide by threatening to reveal details of his private life. These were just some of their tactics.

FBI agents infiltrated or hired informants to try to destroy almost every left-wing group in major U.S. cities. Although the FBI no longer calls its domestic spying and intelligence gathering COINTELPRO, its reactionary mandate continues today.

City police intelligence units—nicknamed “Red Squads”—regularly worked alongside COINTELPRO agents to infiltrate, harass and gather intelligence on political and social groups. With a repressive heritage dating as far back as the 1886 Haymarket Riot, police Red Squads popped up in cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles in the 1920s. At that time, the primary function of Red Squads was to seek out and “neutralize” labor union organizers and anti-government dissidents. They focused their attacks on communists but also targeted countless progressive organizers.

Red Squads continued to operate legally into the 1970s and 80s. Similar police intelligence units with different names target revolutionary activists and organizations today.

Minimal limits imposed

By the 1970s, large sectors of the progressive movement demanded an end to government spying. COINTELPRO was officially ended in 1971 after a radical activist group broke into an FBI field office and stole files on progressive organizations. It disseminated these files to news agencies and the story spread quickly. A broad section of the public was outraged at the mass campaign of violence and intimidation that the government had unleashed on progressive organizers.

The public outcry over COINTELPRO led to Congressional investigations, such as the famed 1976 Senate committee headed by Senator Frank Church. The “Church Committee” exposed the FBI secret program as historically repressive, but failed to punish anyone for its innumerable crimes against the people.

One result of the movement to abolish government spying was legislation. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was passed in 1978. It prohibits spying on individuals and groups within U.S. territory, but it also gives very broad powers to the executive branch.

FISA established a secret court that approves secret warrants for intelligence gathering. Since its establishment, the secret court has refused only four government requests for warrants. FISA is what the Bush administration is now accused of violating.

Also in the 1970s and 80s, the strength of the progressive movement and public opposition to repressive tactics forced cities to officially disband their “Red Squads.” The New York City Police Department was restricted in its previously unbridled ability to spy on political groups and activists in 1985.

The restrictions were first imposed through settlement of a class action lawsuit against police spying. The consent decree signed in 1985, named the Handschu Agreement, established an oversight board to monitor police surveillance and also set certain guidelines for the NYPD, which was no longer allowed to monitor political demonstrations except for purposes of crowd control. Similar restrictions were imposed in other cities both before and after Handschu. The agreement was achieved only after 14 years of legal and political struggle.

But these restrictions do not mean the government has not continued to spy on political activists. In recent years, there have been complaints of police violating the Handschu Agreement. As far back as 1989, the authorities began erecting elaborate police barricades, which often made it next to impossible for passersby to join demonstrations and also made it easier for the police to observe legal protests. Police were also caught violating the agreement when they illegally taped a rally in solidarity with Cuba in April 1990. Protestors were illegally taped in February 2000 after the acquittal of NYPD cops who murdered Amadou Diallo.

Attempts to increase spying power

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the government at all levels has used the pretext of “fighting terrorism” to push back any limits on its ability to spy.

Immediately after Sept. 11, then-attorney general John Ashcroft loosened domestic surveillance restrictions and boosted the FBI’s investigative powers. Congress gave the Bush administration the authority to use military force and enhanced FISA through the USA Patriot Act, which allows spying on “groups that are not specifically backed by a foreign government.”

One of the few restrictions remaining on government spying after Sept. 11 is that the president still must seek emergency warrants from the secret FISA court that oversees intelligence operations before conducting surveillance on any group or individual. But the USA Patriot Act has allowed it to reauthorize the secret domestic spying program over 30 times without obtaining a warrant from the secret FISA courts.

The Bush administration’s spying campaign is not much different than power sought by other U.S. presidents. As pointed out by John Schmidt, associate attorney general in the Clinton administration, “every president since FISA’s passage has asserted that he retained inherent power to go beyond the act’s terms.” (New York Times, Dec. 27, 2005) Because the war in Iraq is not going as planned, the Bush administration’s surveillance of political groups and U.S. residents is now being questioned openly, not only by activists, but also by liberal and bourgeois institutions.

On Dec. 19, 2005, in a live television broadcast from the White House, Bush acknowledged authorizing domestic spying without requiring agents to obtain a court order or warrant. His acknowledgment followed various articles on the subject from major bourgeois media outlets.

Pushing back

Prior to Bush’s speech, the New York Times had published a series of major articles on the government’s warrantless spying on anti-war protests and U.S. residents. The articles accused the Department of Defense, FBI and NSA of conducting illegal surveillance. It was later revealed that the Times had known about the domestic spying program for nearly a year but suppressed it at the Bush administration’s request, showing its deeper allegiance to the government than to the general public.

Congress is also starting to make noise about the Bush administration’s authorization of domestic spying. Some in Congress are upset that the administration did not notify it that the spying operation was in place. There is even hushed talk of impeachment—a popular demand at anti-war marches for years—but it is unlikely that much will be done apart from closed-door hearings and hand-wringing in the media.

The executive branch is vested with almost blanket authority to do what it wants. What Congress does is mostly a show for the electorate. In addition, Congress is the governmental body that gave the Bush administration legal cover to spy on people as it pleased in 2001. Congress is almost totally subservient to the executive and fundamentally favors all forms of spying on the public. Its phony worry now was triggered only by the widespread public outcry.

The government’s secret domestic spying program is a blatant affront to people’s civil liberties that were won over many years of struggle. Organizing and speaking out against this program is essential to defeating it. The government hopes that people will be intimidated and respond meekly to its illegal machinations. But, instead of cowering, a strong, united movement of revolutionaries and progressives can push back this attack on political organizing.

Articles may be reprinted with credit to Socialism and Liberation magazine.

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