Despite all of our nation’s high-minded ideals about free speech, our government considers dissent an unnecessary and dangerous evil. Recent developments amply demonstrate that when it comes to our government’s distaste for freedom of expression, history most definitely repeats.
Consider, for instance, that on June 30, 2005, President Bush established the National Security Service, a domestic spy agency within the FBI. How might the NSS operate? Well, history provides some guidance. In 1919, the Justice Department created the General Intelligence Division (headed by J. Edgar Hoover) for the sole purpose of spying on domestic political groups, namely communists. In the ’30s and ’40s, Roosevelt issued numerous secret orders authorizing the FBI to spy on “subversive activities” within the U.S., “particularly Fascism and Communism,” regardless of any criminal activity.
Following World War II, the FBI continued to spy on liberal and leftist organizations, such as the NAACP, without suspicion of criminal activity. Of course, during the McCarthy Era and the Cold War, the FBI was virtually unrestrained in its unconstitutional investigations of alleged communist subversives. In the ’60s and ’70s, through its COINTELPRO program, the FBI not only spied on groups engaged in unpopular political activities, according to the Church Committee, the FBI also “conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation” with the express goal of “preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association.” In the ’80s, the FBI spied on members of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), a peaceful group openly critical of the Reagan administration’s policy in El Salvador (like backing death squads).
If the FBI’s record of abusing civil liberties throughout the 20th Century is of insufficient concern, its more recent activities ought to send a chill down your spine. As the result of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU, it turns out that since 9/11, the FBI, in conjunction with the Joint Terrorism Task Force (a creation of the Department of Homeland Security that encourages local law enforcement agencies to report as possible terrorist, among others, those engaged in lawful protest and dissent), has been spying on the ACLU and other lawful, non-violent groups such as Greenpeace and United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ). Among the information referred to the FBI’s counter-terrorism personnel was UFPJ’s efforts to organize a public demonstration prior to the 2004 Republican National Convention.
(It should be telling that the American Civil Liberties Union, perhaps the staunchest defender of the First Amendment, is suspected of terrorist activities by the Bush administration.)
UFPJ’s exercise of its First Amendment rights is not the only post-9/11 instance of political dissent giving rise to government suspicions of terrorism. In February of 2004, the Justice Department subpoenaed records from Iowa’s Drake University regarding peaceful on-campus meetings of antiwar activists. In 2003, it was discovered that the FBI was collecting voluminous information regarding the antiwar movement in search of “extremists.” In fact, the FBI continues to surveil and interrogate political dissenters nationwide. Additionally, the FBI encourages local law enforcement agencies to spy on antiwar groups and report them to counter-terrorism units.
It’s not just the FBI that is engaged in spying on those whose opinions conflict with those of the government. In California, the National Guard has established secret units for the sole purpose of spying on peace advocates. California State Senator Joseph Dunn held hearings earlier this month regarding the National Guard’s domestic espionage activities, particularly those of the secret Information Synchronization, Knowledge, Management and Intelligence Fusion unit. Dunn’s investigation has revealed that the ISKMIF unit spied on a Mother’s Day antiwar rally outside the state Capitol. In 2003, the Guard-staffed California Anti-Terrorism Information Center was caught monitoring several antiwar groups over the course of several months.
As should be clear by now, our government in general, and the Bush administration in particular, considers the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment to be dangerous and presumptively subversive. For President Bush, his hatred and fear of free expression ranges from the laughable (staged town hall meetings), to the disconcerting (“free speech zones”), to the downright frightening (the National Security Service). Regardless, however juvenile and absurd its attacks on free speech might be, the Bush administration, like so many other administrations before it, would like nothing more than to amend the First Amendment to read, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Barring that, the Bush administration is content to spy on, keep files on, and intimidate those who dare think and speak for themselves.
Whether branded as anarchists, communists, fascists, pacifists, liberals, or terrorists, the government has always concocted national security reasons to spy on and intimidate those with dissenting views. In fact, I may have already been referred to some counter-terrorism unit for my writing. I may be labeled a potential terrorist for all I know. That troubles me. It should trouble you, too. After all, you’re reading this bit of lawful dissent.