March 16-22, 2006
Slant : Loose CanonWhat's in Your File?
Paranoia makes for strange notions. But sometimes fear is the only reasonable response. Especially after hearing what an ACLU spokesperson was telling this crowd as they shivered in the dusk. The FBI is now actively spying on people just like them; the feds are targeting peace activists. The FBI may say that it's on the hunt for terrorists. But here they're pursuing the least likely people to ever pick up a gun.
This week, the ACLU is releasing FBI documents (www.aclu.org/spyfiles) they say confirm that the agency is investigating the Pittsburgh-based Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice. The documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), strongly suggest that this pacifist group has also been infiltrated by an FBI mole. The ACLU says this is the first time that peaceful political activities are being targeted by the FBI solely because they express an anti-war sentiment.
Actually, it's not the first time. Thirty-five years ago, at the height of Vietnam, local activists snuck into federal offices in Media and purloined cartons of papers (available at www.brandywinepeace.com) that showed how the FBI was infiltrating groups opposed to the war. It was clear evidence that the agency was not being used to protect Americans, but to repress political speech.
In 1971, this revelation caused a major furor, and set off a chain of events that arguably led in 1974 to Richard Nixon's ouster for spying on his political opponents. And if you're hoping, like me, that history will repeat itself, consider this even more terrifying irony: In 1978, an outraged Congress passed legislation that specifically prohibited the president from spying on American citizens without first obtaining a warrant from a special court. This is the very law that George W. Bush continues to defy today, saying he can ignore the law because we're at war.
So how can you stop the feds from peeking at your e-mail and tapping your phones? How can you help George find another job?
File a FOIA on yourself. You've likely checked your credit report. You've probably Googled your name. So why not exercise your right to find out what the federal government has got on you? If you're an environmentalist, an animal rights activist or a social justice organizer, if you write letters to editors or are just in the habit of speaking out, you should file a FOIA. Not just to find out if you've been spied on or not, but to assert your right to do so.
You can do it; the ACLU will help you, free. (Visit their "File a FOIA" workshop on Wed., March 22, 6:30 p.m., at the American Friends Service Committee at 15th and Cherry streets.) Civil rights, like muscles, need to be used regularly. And in the fight against a government that's terrorizing its own, exercising civil rights is the best weapon we have.
The snooping doesn't stop with the feds. Consider what's being contemplated for Philadelphia's City Hall. As part of a $6.5 million project, the city is installing a checkpoint on the northeast corner of City Hall, citing security as the reason.
If you want to visit someone above the first floorsay, a councilmanyou'll be asked to present a driver's license or passport. The guards will enter your info and take a picture of you, which will stay in a government database. Each time you visit City Hall, your visit will be logged.
Curiously, visitors will not be asked to go through a metal detector, except under extraordinary conditions. So not to worry, you can still bring in your Glock.
Feel safer? Neither do I. This is outright intimidation. Requiring a registration to visit City Hall will only further isolate those already disenfranchisedthe homeless, immigrants, and the poor. As this idiotic plan has unfurled, it's been met with dismay from the press and from the ACLU, which is thinking of filing suit. Contact your councilperson, and please add your howl to the chorus.