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Bugs, spies and surveillance tape...
George Bush has his eye on your rights

January 6, 2006 | Page 5

ELIZABETH SCHULTE reports on revelations of the Bush administration's Big Brother tactics.

THE BIG Brother administration in the White House is after your civil liberties. Even mainstream Washington politics has been shaken up over media revelations that the White House okayed illegal wiretaps on U.S. citizens and the Pentagon has been spying on hundreds of activist groups.

A December 16 New York Times article reported that, in 2002, George Bush signed a secret order allowing the National Security Agency (NSA) to listen in on phone conversations and view the e-mail messages of "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of people inside the U.S.--without a warrant.

Before this, intelligence agencies would have had to get a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret court that has rarely turned down a wiretap request and usually says yes within a few hours. "The standard of proof required to obtain a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is generally considered lower than that required for a criminal warrant," the Times reported.

According to the Justice Department, 1,754 warrants were approved by the court in 2004. But that wasn't good enough for the Bush administration, which changed the rules, using powers granted under a congressional resolution in September 2001 that authorized the Bush administration to wage war on al-Qaeda and other "terrorist networks."

But this secret program wasn't secret to everyone. After it started, Vice President Dick Cheney talked to both Republican and Democratic congressional leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees about the NSA's domestic wiretapping program. At a news conference December 19, Bush said the program had been discussed at least 12 times with Congress.

The New York Times story was ready for publication in 2004, amid criticism of the program in Washington, including from the judge who supervises the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. But when the White House asked that the story be held out, the Times complied.

Now, a year and a presidential election later, the Times has finally exposed the Bush administration's secret spy tactics--opening up divisions even among Republicans.

On January 1, the Times reported on a March 2004 emergency meeting in a hospital where then-Attorney General John Ashcroft was recuperating from surgery, in which Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card and then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales reportedly persuaded Ashcroft to reauthorize the spying program after a deputy attorney general refused to.

Bruce Fein, a right-wing conservative who was deputy attorney general under Ronald Reagan, wrote in the conservative Washington Times, "President Bush presents a clear and present danger to the rule of law. He cannot be trusted to conduct the war against global terrorism with a decent respect for civil liberties and checks against executive abuses. Congress should swiftly enact a code that would require Mr. Bush to obtain legislative consent for every counterterrorism measure that would materially impair individual freedoms."

Bush spent most of the last two weeks lashing out at the Times, for daring to finally print the story. "My personal opinion is it was a shameful act, for someone to disclose this very important program in time of war," Bush told reporters. "The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy."

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BUT MORE of the Bush administration's Big Brother tactics were exposed when NBC News revealed a 400-page Defense Department document listing hundreds of groups it considers "threats."

Excerpts of the list, which is available on the MSNBC Web site, show the extent to which the Pentagon has collected data on activism, especially antiwar events. Beside the description, time and place of a protest or meeting, intelligence officials signified whether the event is considered a "threat."

Among the so-called "threats" are peaceful protests against military recruitment. "At first, I was surprised when I saw the Pentagon's list, because there were a lot more events organized by the Campus Antiwar Network [CAN] than I expected," said Elizabeth Wrigley-Field of CAN in New York. "When I thought about it, though, it started to make more sense. Over the last year, CAN activists have had our free speech violated by campus security, who have assaulted several of our members, and administrators, who have tried to have us expelled, at schools all over the country.

"This is the first time we've been aware of the federal government spying on us, but it fits our general experience that when we challenge military recruiters--no matter how peacefully--we're likely to face repression. In fact, it makes me wonder whether our schools' decisions to be so aggressive in dealing with peaceful protest has been influenced by any conversations with the government. CAN is planning a campaign to learn whether our schools have been complicit with this government spying against their students."

The lists bear an eerie resemblance to ones compiled by the Pentagon during the 1960s and 1970s on activists involved in antiwar, women's rights and civil rights movements. "Some people never learn," Christopher Pyle, a former Army intelligence officer, told MSNBC.

In 1970, Pyle wrote an article in Washington Monthly describing how the Defense Department monitored and infiltrated antiwar and civil rights protests. A congressional investigation showed that the military had investigated at least 100,000 U.S. citizens, leading to passage of a law that put limits on military spying inside the U.S.

But that's changing. Three years ago, the Pentagon created the secret Counterintelligence Field Activity unit (CIFA), which generated the database uncovered in the NBC report. CIFA was originally in charge of protecting the military from spying by terrorists and foreign intelligence services, but two years ago, it turned to domestic threats. One of CIFA's jobs is to classify so-called Talon (Threat and Local Observation Notice) reports, which consist of unverified information picked up by the military on supposed "suspicious" activities, such as antiwar protests.

NBC News also obtained a Defense Department briefing document stamped "secret" that concludes, "[W]e have noted increased communication and encouragement between protest groups using the [I]nternet," but no "significant connection" between incidents, such as "reoccurring instigators at protests" or "vehicle descriptions."

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BIG BROTHER isn't isolated to federal law enforcement. According to a December 22 article in the New York Times, undercover New York City police officers have been carrying out covert surveillance of people protesting the Iraq war, bicycle riders taking part in Critical Mass rides, and even mourners at a vigil for a cyclist killed in an accident.

Videotapes obtained by the Times show, among other things, the fake arrest of a man secretly working with the police that led to a confrontation between police and bystanders at a protest during the Republican National Convention last year.

In 2003, in the name of fighting the "war on terror," Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for the NYPD to have more authority to investigate of political, social and religious groups--turning around decades of civil liberties protections that were the result of widespread outcry over police surveillance abuses in the 1960s. The dangers of terrorism are "perils sufficient to outweigh any First Amendment cost," said federal judge Charles Haight, who granted Bloomberg's police their new authority.

This is the message of the Bush administration's "war on terror": You're either for us, or you're a target, at home and abroad.

"The idea that spying on peaceful protests is somehow preventing terrorism is ludicrous," said Wrigley-Field. "I think the fact that normal exercise of free speech rights and criticism of government policy is considered a 'threat' by the Pentagon tells you something about how they see their job. It's not about preventing terrorism, but about carrying out U.S. foreign policy at any cost, no matter what the American people might actually think about it.

"That's the only way they can be so frightened of students exercising our right to say we want no part in this war. And if that is their job, they should be scared, because we're not going to stop until we get the military recruiters out of our schools and all the troops out of Iraq."

Activists in the 1960s and '70s exposed and confronted the spying and dirty tricks of the U.S. government, setting back the Feds' scare tactics. As Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights argued recently, "The Bush administration has moved us from a government responsible and accountable to the people to one that dictates to the people. Every American should be in political rebellion against the criminals now running this country."

The Bush administration wants to spread fear among those who actively oppose his pro-war agenda. Bush's lies have been exposed for everyone to see. We won't let them roll over our rights.

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