Reading the new reports about the Pentagon conducting surveillance of peaceful anti-war groups and protests, I feel like I'm having a bad '60s flashback.
But I'm not seeing psychedelic lights and thinking I can fly. I'm remembering how the Defense Department aggressively infiltrated anti-war and civil rights groups during that era, spying and collecting files on over 100,000 Americans -- and how J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI used every dirty trick in the "black bag operation" handbook to sabotage the anti-war and civil rights movements.
Now it looks like those ugly days of government paranoia and officially sanctioned lawbreaking might be making a comeback. A secret DoD database obtained by NBC News indicates that Pentagon intelligence and local law enforcement agencies are using the guise of the war on terror to keep an eye on the constitutionally protected activities of anti-war activists. And, despite strict restrictions on the military maintaining records on domestic civilian political activity, evidence suggests the Pentagon is doing just that. According to NBC, the DoD database includes "at least 20 references to U.S. citizens," while other documents indicate that "vehicle descriptions" are also being noted and analyzed.
And it's not just the Pentagon. Documents recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force has also been recording the names and license plate numbers of peaceful anti-war protesters.
With apologies to Buffalo Springfield: There's something happening here... and what it is is painfully clear.
The Bush administration has a long and ignominious history of rhetorical intimidation, routinely equating dissent with a lack of patriotism and a lack of support for our troops. Now it appears it's moving on to actual intimidation.
The need in a post-9/11 world for greater domestic intelligence gathering, processing, and sharing is obviously paramount. Indeed, don't we all wish someone in authority had been paying attention to the Phoenix memo before the 2001 attacks? And the national security agencies responsible for the Pentagon database were originally tasked with creating "a domestic law enforcement database that includes information related to potential terrorist threats." This intel-gathering system is a tangle of acronyms -- including CIFA (Counterintelligence Field Activity), TALON (Threat and Local Observation Notice), and NORTHCOM (U.S. Northern Command) -- but they are all geared toward helping the government keep ahead of terrorists.
There is even a U.S. Army-operated 800 number for reporting suspicious activity, 1-800-CALL-SPY. I kid you not, dial it and you will hear: "You have reached the U.S. Army Call-Spy Hotline. You may remain anonymous. Please leave a detailed message of the incident you with to report. Your call is important. If you wish to be contacted, please leave your name and telephone number..."
But, as is emblematic of this administration, these agencies now appear to be overreaching, moving away from identifying "possible terrorist pre-attack activities" and heading into the murky waters of spying on U.S. citizens doing nothing more than voicing their objections to U.S. policy.
President Bush and many of his closest associates have always positioned themselves as a counterpoint to the '60s counterculture. (Indeed, Bush was so detached from it that he once claimed he had no memory of anti-war activity at Yale during his time there -- even though the campus was a hotbed of student protest) And now his administration has adopted the worst domestic intelligence practices of the '60s establishment.
That's why Congress needs to flex its oversight muscle -- and make sure that the tragic mistakes of the past are not repeated.
It wasn't that long ago that Hoover's notorious COINTELPRO program was illegally infiltrating Students for a Democratic Society and setting out to destroy "Negro radicals" like Dr. Martin Luther King. Our government lied, cheated, harassed, intimidated, burglarized, vandalized, framed, and spread false rumors -- to say nothing of keeping voluminous files on everyone from John Lennon to Allen Ginsberg -- all in an effort to quash legitimate dissent against the war and the racist practices of the South.
We can't let it happen again. Let's start the chant: Hell no, we won't go... back!