Hello, Mom. Hello, FBI. Hello, NSA

A Familiar Abuse of Federal Power

I know a few things about secret, illegal wiretaps. To begin with, they don't stay secret. Second, George Bush should have read the articles of impeachment for Richard Nixon before authorizing the illegal snooping on American citizens.

The second article of impeachment against Nixon cites his use of electronic surveillance for illegal purposes as grounds to remove him from office. The revelations of Nixon's sneaky snooping were the final blow that ended his criminal presidency.

But back to my memoirs. In 1968, a few months after MLK's assassination, Gainesville, Fla., was a police state, especially in the black community. Generally thought of as an oasis of reason in a sea of racism because of the presence of the University of Florida, Gainesville actually differed little from much of the then still u201Csegregation foreveru201D South.

Civil Rights activist Jack Dawkins arrived in Gainesville in 1967, and he mobilized the black community after two girls were molested while in police custody. A grand jury whitewashed the police. At the behest of the Gainesville Sun, Dawkins' newspaper, Black Voices, was declared by a local judge to be a u201Cclear and present danger to the administration of justice.u201D Dawkins was held without bail. Famed Civil Rights attorney William Kunstler charged to the defense of the activist, and a federal appellate court strongly admonished the Gainesville judge, J.C. Adkins.

Disturbances hit the Gainesville ghettoes. Adkins, who later became a Florida Supreme Court justice, let the whole world know just how the Gainesville power structure felt during a press conference: u201CThis isn't the Negroes who did this. It was those white beatniks who support Black Power. If I ever get my hands on them, I hope they get to the court without a lynching.u201D

The message was pretty clear: Blacks were incapable of acting without whites telling them what to do, and lynching u201Cbeatniksu201D was sanctioned by the Florida judiciary.

Dawkins disappeared. u201CWe all knew that the cops would find an excuse to kill him,u201D Marshall Jones, a distinguished psychology professor who was denied tenure at UF because he supported civil rights, told me. Dawkins has never reappeared.

ENTER JOHN SUGG, then a 22-year-old, fresh-from-the-Navy Gator. What I'd learned about Vietnam in the Navy had made me vigorously anti-war, and I eventually helped lead various veteran and student groups opposed to the conflict.

The antiwar and civil rights groups suspected that we were being spied upon and wiretapped. My girlfriend, a UF librarian, obtained her personnel file for an insurance claim – and found more than two dozen photographs of me haranguing crowds, as well as several surveillance memos that made it clear we been u201Cinfiltrated.u201D Court cases would reveal that the spies were the only people advocating violence. We tried an experiment. We got on the phones and breathlessly told each other that Dawkins was returning to Gainesville. We were to meet him at a Winn-Dixie parking lot in the middle of the night. We buzzed it up on the phones with tons of details, alluding to secret communications channels with Dawkins.

We, of course, had no idea where Dawkins was u2014 even if he was still alive or had been murdered in the spirit of Judge Adkins dictum. But we did know where throngs of federal and local cops would be on the night in question, and we were right. We got the drop on the federal agents staking out the Winn-Dixie, and photographed them waiting to collar (or kill) Dawkins.

More important, as would come out in several cases u2014 most notably the u201CGainesville 8,u201D a trial of Vietnam vets accused (and found innocent) of plotting terrorist attacks at the 1972 Republican National Convention – the government never had any evidence against activists nor did it have any legal justification for many violations of constitutional rights. In one instance, it was revealed that federal intelligence officers held a child hostage to force the babe's prostitute mother to swear to outlandish tales of sex and drug orgies among anti-war activists.

Fast forward to circa now. George Bush's assault on civil liberties, the gloriously misnamed PATRIOT Act, was drafted before 9/11. It was sitting there … waiting. The cry from the Bushies is that they need better intelligence (and, yes, we all agree that that's true by one definition of intelligence). We know that Bush was warned, weeks before 9/11, of very specific plans by Osama bin Laden to attack American targets with hijacked planes – and our government did little (other than John Ashcroft stopped flying commercial flights). Lack of intelligence wasn't the cause of 9/11.

We also know that all of the thousands detained u2014 probably unconstitutionally u2014 after 9/11 have revealed few real threats to America. The government has had little success in terrorism prosecutions u2014 especially compared to the numbers detained. The most recent government debacle was the failed prosecution of Tampa academic Sami Al-Arian, after a decade of investigations.

We know that when the Bush administration came out last May with an assessment of terrorist threats, it wasn't murderous groups such as right-wing militias, anti-abortion extremists and other haters that interested the feds. Rather, the u201Cthreatsu201D were environmental and animal rights groups, which despite vandalism have never killed anyone.

In December, the New York Times reported: u201CThe Federal Bureau of Investigation (has) 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. … u201D Gotta keep an eye on terrorist poverty fighters.

THE BUSH PSYCHOLOGY is to keep the public in a constant state of fear. Logic and liberty die in such an environment. We are far more safe today, even with Bush's mismanagement of the nation, than when we faced Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan or the nuclear-armed Soviets. Yet, Bush contends that as a u201Cwar president,u201D his power should be unlimited. Thus, he can sign a law agreeing not to torture people, and then immediately sign a declaration that he is not bound by that law.

The power to wiretap and monitor U.S. citizens is constitutionally anathema. But, more important, this isn't a power whose real mission is nabbing terrorists. The targets of the abuse are Americans – who must fear that their phones are bugged, their emails read, their list of library books turned over to agents, their bank accounts sifted.

That experience of mine I mentioned: An FBI agent called me two years ago with a not-too-subtle threat to reveal wiretaps of me talking to Al-Arian. The agent, Kerry Myers of Tampa, was attempting to get me to snitch on federal law enforcement sources who had confided in me.

A jury last month refused to convict Al-Arian of any crime, despite the government having listened in to almost 500,000 conversations. Defense lawyers are now charging that many of those wiretaps were conducted under Bush's illegal – and no longer secret – scheme. Bush's penalty for the illegal program could be – should be – Nixon's fate, impeachment.

The government's goal is control. A docile population, whose anxieties are jacked up by the strident mendacities on Fox News, is prepped to believe even the most outlandish claims of Big Brother. And if you disagree and dissent, be careful of what you say on the phone.

January 27, 2006