Note the key facts below:
1. The FBI is systematically questioning groups it thinks are anti-Bush, asking if they plan violent protests during the Republican Convention, or know of anyone who does.
2. The FBI says, “No one was dragged from their homes and put under bright lights. The interviewees were free to talk to us or close the door in our faces,” and indeed there is no evidence to the contrary.
3. At least some potential demonstrators have been intimidated: “they got the message loud and clear that if you make plans to go to a protest, you could be subject to arrest or a visit from the F.B.I.” It may be that they were wrong to be intimdated, but can you blame them? And if this chilling effect is widespread, should that not be a cause for some concern?
4. While the FBI's reported questions would not be troubling in the context of a case where it has particularized suspicion, they are troubling when used dragnet-style. And the FBI's awareness of someone's opposition to the Administration's policies — however fervent — does not imply they intend violence, and cannot suffice to substitute for particularized suspicion.
5. Without knowing more details I cannot say with confidence if the FBI has crossed the line separating mere bad taste and errors of judgment from systematic First Amendment violations. That said, what's going on is bad enough that someone on the inside filed an internal protest, although that must surely be a career-ending event in the FBI. That doesn't look good.
6. There's no comfort to be had from the OLC in the Justice Department opining that it's all 100% kosher. This is, after all, the same office whose warped vision of the Constitution allowed them to opine torture was legal. But I'd sure like to see that “Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy … five-page internal analysis obtained by The New York Times.”
7. It seems the FBI has nothing better to do than to send six — SIX! — special agents to interview one 21-year-old anti-war group intern. Of course, that could never be seen as in any way intimidating.
The New York Times: F.B.I. Goes Knocking for Political Troublemakers. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been questioning political demonstrators across the country, and in rare cases even subpoenaing them, in an aggressive effort to forestall what officials say could be violent and disruptive protests at the Republican National Convention in New York.
F.B.I. officials are urging agents to canvass their communities for information about planned disruptions aimed at the convention and other coming political events, and they say they have developed a list of people who they think may have information about possible violence. They say the inquiries, which began last month before the Democratic convention in Boston, are focused solely on possible crimes, not dissent, at major political events.
But some people contacted by the F.B.I. say they are mystified by the bureau's interest and felt harassed by questions about their political plans.
“The message I took from it,” said Sarah Bardwell, 21, an intern at a Denver antiwar group who was visited by six investigators a few weeks ago, “was that they were trying to intimidate us into not going to any protests and to let us know that, 'hey, we're watching you.' ''
The unusual initiative comes after the Justice Department, in a previously undisclosed legal opinion, gave its blessing to controversial tactics used last year by the F.B.I in urging local police departments to report suspicious activity at political and antiwar demonstrations.
The bulletins that relayed that request detailed tactics used by demonstrators – everything from violent resistance to Internet fund-raising and recruitment.
In an internal complaint, an F.B.I. employee charged that the bulletins improperly blurred the line between lawfully protected speech and illegal activity.
But the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy, in a five-page internal analysis obtained by The New York Times, disagreed.
The office, which also made headlines in June in an opinion – since disavowed – that authorized the use of torture against terrorism suspects in some circumstances, said any First Amendment impact posed by the F.B.I.'s monitoring of the political protests was negligible and constitutional.
If we read about this behavior in another country, would we give the federal politzia the benefit of the doubt? The answer most likely depends on that nation's traditions and recent history.
How long until our national institutions no longer deserve a presumption of honesty when engaged in politically sensitive tasks? Or, in the case of the FBI, headquartered in the J. Edgar Hoover Building, are we well past that point?