[Vision2020] 08-17-04 NY Times OP/ED: Interrogating the Protesters

Art Deco aka W. Fox deco at moscow.com
Tue Aug 17 09:37:57 PDT 2004

August 17, 2004

For several weeks, starting before the Democratic convention, F.B.I. officers
have been questioning potential political demonstrators, and their friends and
families, about their plans to protest at the two national conventions. These
heavy-handed inquiries are intimidating, and they threaten to chill freedom of
expression. They also appear to be a spectacularly poor use of limited
law-enforcement resources. The F.B.I. should redirect its efforts to focus more
directly on real threats.

Six investigators recently descended on Sarah Bardwell, a 21-year-old intern
with a Denver antiwar group, who quite reasonably took away the message that the
government was watching her closely. In Missouri, three men in their early 20's
said they had been followed by federal investigators for days, then subpoenaed
to appear before a grand jury. They ended up canceling their plans to show up
for the Democratic and Republican conventions.

The F.B.I. is going forward with the blessing of the Justice Department's Office
of Legal Counsel - the same outfit that recently approved the use of torture
against terrorism suspects. In the Justice Department's opinion, the chilling
effect of the investigations is "quite minimal," and "substantially outweighed
by the public interest in maintaining safety and order." But this analysis gets
the balance wrong. When protesters are made to feel like criminal suspects, the
chilling effect is potentially quite serious. And the chances of gaining any
information that would be useful in stopping violence are quite small.

The knock on the door from government investigators asking about political
activities is the stuff of totalitarian regimes. It is intimidating to be
visited by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, particularly by investigators
who warn that withholding information about anyone with plans to create a
disruption is a crime.

And few people would want the F.B.I. to cross-examine their friends and family
about them. If engaging in constitutionally protected speech means subjecting
yourself to this kind of government monitoring, many Americans may decide - as
the men from Missouri did - that the cost is too high.

Meanwhile, history suggests that the way to find out what potentially violent
protesters are planning is not to send F.B.I. officers bearing questionnaires to
the doorsteps of potential demonstrators. As became clear in the 1960's, F.B.I.
monitoring of youthful dissenters is notoriously unreliable. The files that were
created in the past often proved to be laughably inaccurate.

The F.B.I.'s questioning of protesters is part of a larger campaign against
political dissent that has increased sharply since the start of the war on

At the Democratic convention, protesters were sent to a depressing barbed-wire
camp under the subway tracks. And at a recent Bush-Cheney campaign event,
audience members were required to sign a pledge to support President Bush before
they were admitted.

F.B.I. officials insist that the people they interview are free to "close the
door in our faces," but by then the damage may already have been done. The
government must not be allowed to turn a war against foreign enemies into a
campaign against critics at home.

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