Phantoms of lost liberty

Posted: Jun 05, 2002 12:00 AM
Civil libertarians are prudent to caution vigilance concerning increased governmental investigative powers, but their anxiety over recently relaxed FBI domestic surveillance guidelines amounts to little more than scaring people with "phantoms of lost liberty," to borrow a disfavored phrase. Along with restructuring to shift its primary focus to terror investigation, the FBI has also announced a relaxation of its domestic surveillance guidelines. Even without evidence of specific criminal activity, the FBI will now be able to look for leads in public places, such as libraries and on the Internet, and will be able to access commercial databases. Undercover agents will also be permitted to attend religious services and political meetings. So what’s the big deal? The New York Times believes that we are "giving FBI agents nearly unbridled power to poke into the affairs of anyone in the United States," which "promises to upset the delicate balance between security and liberty." Hold on now. All we are talking about is leveling the playing field by untying the FBI’s hands so that it can search for leads in public places where there is no expectation of privacy. Should the FBI be denied authority to surf the Internet and to visit the library when 4-year-olds have those freedoms? And what self-respecting nation would deny itself access to commercial databases? Understand that the new guidelines, which do not change the rules governing wiretaps or other forms of electronic surveillance, will in no way imperil the 4th Amendment safeguard against unreasonable searches and seizures. What about allowing undercover agents to attend religious services and political rallies? Will this violate the First Amendment guarantees of free exercise of religion, freedom of assembly and free speech? Not a whit. Neither religious leaders nor political activists, unless they are up to no good, have any reason to fear being monitored by the FBI. Indeed, since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has gone out of its way to encourage tolerance toward Islam. Let’s get a grip. The FBI is changing no laws, but is merely lifting self-imposed restrictions it implemented following its illegal wiretaps and other questionable activities against Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, mostly during the '60s. Since there is nothing specific in the critics’ objections and not a shred of legitimacy to their panic-ridden assertions that the sky is falling on the Constitution, what is behind their hysteria? Well, I think I’ve figured it out. What they really fear is a slippery slope that may ultimately lead to the suppression of their political dissent. They ignore that investigations under the new rules are specifically limited to rooting out terrorism. No matter. From the New York Times to the ACLU, the critics are worried that the nefarious right wing (all of us deep down being little J. Edgar Hoover protégés) is out to invade their homes and bedrooms and muzzle their speech. This is abundantly ironic, since most measures aimed at restricting religious and political expression in modern America -- not to mention the collection of FBI files on political enemies -- have come from the Left. You can sense their paranoia each monotonous time they invoke the canard that the right is questioning their patriotism when they question the president on policy. I’m sorry to disappoint you critics, but these guideline changes have nothing to do with squelching political dissenters and everything to do with preventing terrorist murders of Americans. We’re not talking about Martin Luther King here, who sought peaceful political change, but the Mohammed Attas, who slaughtered thousands of innocents. And we’re certainly not talking about investigating the president’s critics, for goodness' sake. It would help if the critics would at least proofread their talking points for inconsistencies. They condemn the FBI for ignoring pre-9-11 intelligence, but stand in the way of meaningful reform, saying we shouldn’t reward failure. They say the FBI bungled its analysis of data, but they refuse to praise it for planning to hire more analysts. They castigate the Washington office for preventing Minnesota field agents from exploring leads on Zacharias Moussaoui, but they object to giving field agents more authority to develop leads. The critics usually say they appreciate the magnitude of the terrorist threat, but if they truly did, they would reserve their energies for objecting to real constitutional encroachments instead of these phantoms of lost liberty. They seem to be afraid that the right is still looking for "Communists behind every rock," but it may be more accurate to conclude that they are seeing FBI agents behind every political stump.