Obama’s FBI: Is this America?In the last weeks of the Bush-Cheney administration, FBI Director Robert Mueller and then Attorney General Michael Mukasey rushed into law such unbounded expansions of the FBI’s domestic surveillance powers that I was stunned. Years ago, I had often and critically reported on J. Edgar Hoover’s ravenous invasions of Americans’ personal privacy rights, including mine; but these new FBI guidelines, taking effect last Dec. 1, are unsparingly un-American.
By: Nat Henthoff, First Amendment, The Jamestown Sun
In the last weeks of the Bush-Cheney administration, FBI Director Robert Mueller and then Attorney General Michael Mukasey rushed into law such unbounded expansions of the FBI’s domestic surveillance powers that I was stunned. Years ago, I had often and critically reported on J. Edgar Hoover’s ravenous invasions of Americans’ personal privacy rights, including mine; but these new FBI guidelines, taking effect last Dec. 1, are unsparingly un-American.
As described by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an ever-watchful guardian of the Constitution, these Attorney General’s Guidelines for Domestic FBI Operations authorize the FBI — without going to a court — “to open investigative ‘assessments’ of any American without any factual predicate or suspicion. Such ‘assessments’ allow the use of intrusive techniques to surreptitiously collect information on people suspected of no wrongdoing and no connection with any foreign entity. These inquiries may include the collection of information from online sources and commercial databases.”
FBI agents, moreover, as I have previously reported, can infiltrate lawful civic and political groups, along with religious places of worship, and may take into account, in their threat “assessments” race, ethnicity and religion. The press has largely been uninterested in this suspension of the Bill of Rights — but we know a lot about David Letterman.
President Barack Obama has expressed no objections to these radical revisions of the Constitution, a founding document he used to educate students about at the University of Chicago. His attorney general, Eric Holder, said calmly during his Senate confirmation hearing: “The guidelines are necessary because the FBI is changing its mission ... from a pure investigating agency to one that deals with national security.”
It was the same Eric Holder who said, while George W. Bush was president: “I never thought that I would see the day when a president would act in direct defiance of federal law by authorizing warrantless NSA (National Security Agency) surveillance of American citizens.”
But then senator, and now president, Obama approves of the all-seeing NSA — in keeping with his lack of interest in reforming the perilous health of our founding values as they are being systematically infected by the FBI.
It was only on Sept. 29 that we citizen civilians were able to actually, though partially, look inside the 258-page “FBI Domestic Investigations and Operations Guidelines (DIOG).” For months, the Electronic Frontier Foundation had been trying, through the Freedom of Information Act, to find out if we’ll have any privacy left. At last, the lurking report came heavily censored.
According to the Associated Press (Oct. 1), Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney David Sobel is “more concerned with what the FBI removed from its guidelines for public consumption than what it disclosed.” He added that this heavily “edited version blacked out descriptions of how the FBI pursues investigative ‘assessments’ of Americans without any evidence of wrongdoing — and how it uses informants in political, civil and religious organizations.”
To be sort of safe, watch what you say on your phone or the Internet, or to the person sitting next to you during the Sunday church service.
As Sobel says in patriotic frustration: “The critical parts of the guidelines are being withheld, so it’s impossible for anyone to make any informed comment on what the FBI is doing.”
I ask again: Is this America? (Full disclosure: That’s the title of a new book I’m working on that tries to show how we can regain an Americanism we can believe in.)
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is going back to court to get the Obama administration to remember why we — and they — are Americans. That should also be the job of Obama’s secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who has been given millions of our tax dollars to create and sustain real, durable reforms in public schools around the nation.
If Duncan is going to bring back civics classes (left behind under No Child Left Behind), he should get a prime-time TV spot to show Holder and the FBI’s Mueller instructing future voters — and current ones looking in — on how they square the Fourth Amendment, the First Amendment and the separation of powers with their FBI guidelines that could have been an appendix to George Orwell’s “1984.”
Remember Orwell’s Big Brother: “How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate, they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to.”
On “Inside the FBI” (www.fbi.gov/inside/archive/inside011609.htm) on Jan. 16, the FBI’s leading attorney, General Counsel Valerie Caproni, talks about surveilling college students interning at technology businesses for links to terrorists. “Are they a bunch of English majors and music majors? If so, they’re probably not stealing high technology. On the other hand, if they’re engineering or computer science people, then you might be more interested in them.”
It’s “enough to open an investigation,” she continued. For example, “if someone comes in (to the FBI) and says ‘Charlie seems to be acting really hinky and he’s staying in labs after hours and I saw him taking papers home.”‘
This “hinky” student, Charlie could be a grind, obsessively trying to get to the top of his class. But according to the FBI’s Valerie Caproni, why not see what his contacts are? What sites does he visit a lot on the Web?
In a later column, I shall next continue with: Who wrote the very first FBI guidelines — and why? And still later, do you know about the ever-expanding databases of the FBI’s National Security Branch Analysis Center? Among its bulging contents — the Oct. 4 St. Petersburg Times reports — are “the suspicious activity forms filled out by banks on their customers.” Do you look “hinky” as you make a deposit?
Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.
Copyright 2009, Nat Hentoff.
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