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How to Beat Ashcroft's FBI at its Own Game
May 4, 2002
By Jackson Thoreau

"Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech." - Ben Franklin

The Orwellian Patriot Act is in full swing, and it's not pretty. There's the eerie knock on your door, then government agents snoop through your home, your computer, your underwear, anything to fabricate evidence to accuse you of treason. And it's only going to get worse, as the U.S. Citizen Corps - the Spy on Your Neighbors program - expands, and you have to worry about whether your mail carrier or your crime watch group will report you to the authorities for receiving copies of Mother Jones or The Nation.

While this situation is alarming, to say the least, it's not without historical precedent. And if we study what the real American patriots - not those Bush-Cheney-Ashcroft thieves and hypocrites - have done to combat such intimidation and suppression, we can beat these suckers at their own game.

African-Americans have long faced the prospect of government agents and the Ku Klux Klan invading their homes to terrorize and kill them in this country. The old colonies enacted laws to publicly and cruelly dismember blacks who fought back starting in the 17th century. But they kept fighting, and many Anglos like John Brown joined their cause.

Even when African-Americans were freed from formal slavery in the 1860s, the government's jackboots remained upon them. The FBI harassed key leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., tapping his phone, blackmailing him, sending him a fake letter urging him to commit suicide. Many believe certain government officials were involved in a plot to assassinate King that succeeded in 1968. Partly in response to riots after King's murder, Congress passed the Orwellian Civil Rights Act in 1968 that strengthened police powers against civil rights organizers. The first to be prosecuted under this act was a young black leader, H. Rap Brown, after he issued a pointed speech in Maryland, according to historian Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States.

The FBI used informants inside the Black Panthers to murder leaders like Fred Hampton, who was killed in 1969 by agents as he lay in bed inside his Chicago apartment that they riddled with as many as 200 rounds. The FBI's COINTELPRO program took almost 300 such actions against African-American groups from 1956 through 1971, according to Zinn. Still, they kept fighting back, through violent and non-violent means.

Jeffersonian Republicans - who bear little resemblance to the current bunch of Reps - squared off against official suppression in the late 1790s. Federalists like Adams and Hamilton wanted the Jeffersonians silenced - and they wanted no more Shays Rebellions, the armed 1786 farmers' revolt led by Daniel Shays against the wealthy merchants and bankers who stole their farms - so they passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Government agents arrested numerous Jeffersonians, including journalists like the grandson of Ben Franklin, convicted them for supposed treason, and shut down their printing presses. Jeffersonians fought back by organizing angry street protests and political campaigns that rode Jefferson to the White House in 1800. Jefferson pardoned those convicted under the acts, and Congress repealed them in 1802.

Socialists, Communists, labor activists, and those accused of the above have also long heard that knock of suppression at their doors. Many leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World, such as Joe Hill, were harassed and even killed in the early 1900s. The Palmer Raids of 1920 rounded up and deported thousands of immigrants suspected of being Socialists. From 1947, when former President Harry Truman issued an executive order to crack down on "disloyal" citizens suspected of being Communists, until 1952, some 6.6 million people were monitored by government agents, according to Zinn. As many as 500 government employees lost their jobs during this time.

Former Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts later in the 1950s ruined the lives of many more Americans whose only "crime" was that they didn't think the way the government wanted. The Internal Security Act of this time set up concentration camps for suspected Communists who were denied their constitutional rights. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were even executed in 1953 after the government employed questionable methods and could have doctored evidence in their trial as accused spies. A son of the Rosenbergs, Robert Meeropol, believes to this day that his parents were framed and unjustly executed. He started the Rosenberg Fund for Children; more information can be obtained at www.rfc.org.

In A Citizen's Dissent, attorney and author Mark Lane wrote of the official suppression he encountered while researching the lies behind the Warren Report, the government's version of who killed John F. Kennedy in 1963. Lane described an incident in which FBI agents accosted him outside his New York residence, and he shook them off by simply refusing their request to search his home, and demanding that they leave and send him a letter detailing exactly what they were seeking. Lane even pushed one agent who stood in his way slightly to walk past him. Lane also wrote about being on a government "watch list" as he departed an airplane.

In what should come as no shock, Lane wrote that people in Europe in the mid-1960s were more skeptical about the Warren Report than those in the U.S. That's a similar situation today, in that Europeans are generally more skeptical towards the "War on Terrorism" than Americans. At least Kennedy assassination researchers have a Warren Report to sort through the official lies; people like U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., who ask for a Congressional investigation of what occurred on Sept. 11 are accused of treason.

In the 1970s and 1980s, activists of various stripes were under the gun. In Texas, a group that harbored Central American refugees, which included a priest and nuns, was infiltrated by government agents. I was among the peace, justice, and environmental activists during that time who were monitored by government agents. I simply refused to let such repression stop what I was doing; rather the suppression spurred me on to keep fighting, perhaps longer than I might have otherwise. That's what a lot of right-wing government officials don't understand; their Gestapo tactics only make their opponents stronger.

In the past few months, as more than 150 college campuses across the country have hosted rallies protesting Bush policies, there have been numerous instances of FBI and Secret Service agents questioning students and others who are critical of the Patriot Act and other administration policies. Among those receiving such visits were students at Chicago's Northwestern University and North Carolina's Durham Tech, according to a recent article in the Toronto Star. Barry Reingold, a 60-year-old retired telephone company worker in San Francisco, was visited by FBI agents simply for voicing criticism of the "War on Terrorism" at his local private health club, the Star reported. FBI and Secret Service agents even visited the Houston Art Car Museum because it showed an educational exhibit about the government's "secret wars." The exhibit began before Sept. 11.

The FBI also has a no-fly list of people who can be kept off airplanes for speaking out against administration policies. A group from Wisconsin missed some of the recent weekend protests in Washington, D.C., around Earth Day after being detained by officials, according to The Progressive. Among those members of the Peace Action Milwaukee group were a priest and a nun. But such tactics did not stop an estimated crowd of 75,000 from protesting Bush policies on Earth Day in Washington, believed to be the largest anti-war demonstration in the nation's capital since the Persian Gulf War.

The suppression campaign has extended beyond the FBI. Several journalists and at least one college professor have been fired for writing columns, or stating views, critical of the war effort. Right-wingers like Bill Bennett and Lynne Cheney are pressuring college professors and others into silence through intimidating tactics that include mailings to alumni of universities where professors take unpopular stands to urge they not donate to that school. At the University of Texas at Austin - considered to be progressive for a Texas college - university president Larry Faulkner publicly called professor Robert Jensen a "fool" for opposing the U.S. terrorism response. If Jensen did not have tenure, no doubt he would be fired.

Some professors and students are even being used by the CIA, FBI, and other government officials to further their suppressive campaigns around the world. That practice has occurred for a long time; I interviewed a Texas college professor in 1981 who a source said worked for the CIA. He denied such an affiliation. However, a few years later, the professor met a mysterious death; he was run over by a train early one morning in the middle of nowhere.

Expect even more professors, postal workers, phone company workers, neighborhood crime-watch members, and others to be used as government spies through the Citizen Corps program, which is organized under the USA Freedom Corps. Even professional huckster Ed McMahon has been signed to promote this undemocratic campaign, which poses as a community volunteer effort against terrorism. More information on this program can be viewed at www.citizencorps.gov and www.usaonwatch.org.

In the 1990s, conservatives could say whatever the hell they wanted about the Clinton administration without being visited by the FBI. They could oppose Clinton's programs to the point of working to impeach him for lying about a private extramarital affair that was none of the American people's business in the first place, without being accused of aiding U.S. enemies or terrorists or committing treason. You can argue that the difference lies in what happened on Sept. 11, but that still doesn't mean we have to sacrifice our basic rights for which Americans before us have fought and died.

OK, you may be saying, many Americans who stood up for what they thought was right in the past have faced various forms of government and corporate suppression. And they dealt with the repression in various ways, from ignoring it to non-violent and violent responses. So how does that help our present situation against the Bush forces?

Much of the intimidation these days seems to be coming from Ashcroft's FBI. The FBI is an agency I'm well acquainted with, as my father worked there for 25 years, including seven years as an agent. While he has not talked much about what exactly he did there, saying he swore to keep silent about certain aspects when he left, I have learned a few things about FBI agents' jobs and how they operate. I used some of this knowledge to my benefit in dealing with government officials and agents as a peace-justice-environmental activist in the 1980s. And it's obviously time to bring back the tactics.

The following are some tips on how to deal with FBI agents if they knock on your door:

* First off, don't be intimidated. Understand that the agent at your door is a person who is just doing his or her job and probably doesn't really want to be at your doorstep. Some agents like intimidating people, especially those they don't agree with politically. But a lot of them are uneasy - and even feel guilty - about barging into someone's home just because that person disagrees with the current administration's policies. They'd rather be out chasing down the real bad guys. So, remain calm and don't yell or freak out - they could use that to claim you tried to assault them. In the 1980s, I was on a long project in which we were monitored by government agents. We would act friendly towards them and generally treat them like humans. This disarmed them from the beginning, and most didn't hang around long.

* Calmly ask to see the agents' badges and write down the numbers. Call the police or local FBI office to verify the numbers. If the agents' credentials check out, you do not have to let them in unless they have a search warrant. If they want to come in, ask for their search warrant. Write down the judge's name who signed it and call his or her office to verify the warrant.

* If the search warrant checks out, you will have to let them inside if they ask to enter. But you should grab a video or audio recorder and record everything. If they threaten to confiscate your recorder, you should calmly say you have the right to do this in your own home because you want to protect yourself, and you want evidence for a legal complaint or case you might file in the near future with the Justice Department, American Civil Liberties Union, and other places. If they take the recorder, you should firmly tell them you will be filing a complaint with their superiors, and even contacting your Congress representatives and the media about that illegal pilfering of your property. And you should follow through with making such complaints and contacts.

* Make sure you follow the agents and carefully note what they are looking through and if they take anything. You should not allow them to take your computer hard drive. If they insist they have the right to take it, tell them you do not think that is legal with just a search warrant; they will have to prove they need the hard drive to make a case. Ask to call an attorney and have him or her present, if the agents keep insisting they need your computer. As a last resort, offer to let them look through your hard drive at home, if they will not confiscate it. Once the computer is off your premises, you do not know what they will do with it - it might come back missing numerous files and programs or have a built-in sensor program that allows them to monitor anything you type into the machine.

* As a regular precaution, delete any files you do not really need from your hard drive. Save any files you really want on a disk or CD and find a secure hiding place. Go into your windows folder and delete temporary Internet files so they cannot easily see what pages you have seen. Be sure to delete the files from your recycling bin. A trained computer technician can still locate what Web pages you have viewed, but that takes more time, money, and trouble if you make the initial deletion. If you make things hard on the government, it's possible the officials will back off and move on to someone who is easier to monitor.

* If the government builds a case against you, make sure you have a competent attorney. If you cannot afford one, contact the ACLU, or some public legal organization such as at a local university or Legal Aid. And go public. Contact the media, politicians, Internet sites, organizations, and anyone else you think can help you. Operating in the light of public opinion is one of the best forms of protection you can have.

* I support doing everything you can legally and non-violently to combat Ashcroft and the others in the Bush administration - and that means filing lawsuits and complaints, and attending protests. I understand why some use violence and illegal means in response to governmental crackdowns. If I had been an African-American slave being brutalized in the 19th century, I probably would have resorted to violence. If I had lived in Boston in 1770, I probably would have participated in the Boston Tea Party, which was a protest that employed illegal, though justifiable under the circumstances, means - breaking into British ships and destroying some of their contents. But I cannot recommend such tactics in this current campaign. Perhaps that will change in the future, but I believe we should proceed with legal, non-violent responses currently.

It's a difficult environment we are entering, one that will take cunning, courage, and persistence to survive intact. But if we approach this calmly and rationally and are armed with the proper knowledge, we can prevail. We have beaten these suckers in the past, and we can do it again.

Jackson Thoreau is co-author of We Will Not Get Over It: Restoring a Legitimate White House. The 110,000-word electronic book can be downloaded at here, here, or here. Thoreau can be emailed at jacksonthor@justice.com.

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