Call me a contrarian, but the latest story on government spying doesn’t have the same punch as Bush’s FISA imbroglio, although the timing is practically Groucho Marx. Here’s the skinny:
Counterterrorism agents at the Federal Bureau of Investigation have conducted numerous surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations that involved, at least indirectly, groups active in causes as diverse as the environment, animal cruelty and poverty relief, newly disclosed agency records show.
The Patriot Act, of course, loosened rules about who could be watched and how. So people have a right to be concerned when we find out that the government seems to paint ‘terrorism’ with a rather broad brush:
[T]he documents, coming after the Bush administration’s confirmation that President Bush had authorized some spying without warrants in fighting terrorism, prompted charges from civil rights advocates that the government had improperly blurred the line between terrorism and acts of civil disobedience and lawful protest.
One F.B.I. document indicates that agents in Indianapolis planned to conduct surveillance as part of a “Vegan Community Project.” Another document talks of the Catholic Workers group’s “semi-communistic ideology.” A third indicates the bureau’s interest in determining the location of a protest over llama fur planned by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
To be honest, FBI surveillance of domestic groups is nothing new. As much as I’d prefer that they spend some energy on the armed crazies, which might have headed off genuine terror attacks such as Tim McVeigh and Eric Rudolph, we in the environmental community knew that we lived under federal scrutiny. When Patriot removed the red tape it seemed like a no-brainer that the FBI would go on doing what they’ve always been doing, only more intrusively. That’s why some people braved the hysterical demagoguery of the ’02 midterms to suggest that Patriot might be a bad idea. There’s nothing wrong with fighting terrorism, but there’s nothing in the Act that says that you and your dog aren’t terrorists.
This is where timing comes in – you can’t write a better coda for Russ Feingold’s successful effort to shut down reauthorization of the Patriot Act than this story. If we’re going to revisit the sweeping federal powers enumerated in Patriot, let’s take a serious look at what has actually been done in its name and ask whether that’s what we want our government to be doing.