Government Surveillance Hits Home

April 16th, 2004 - by admin

by Friends National Committee on Legislation –

(March 16, 2004) — The US government has repeatedly assured the public that peaceful and law-abiding citizens have no reason to worry about anti-terrorism investigations. The actions of the executive branch indicate otherwise.

On February 3, 2004, three Des Moines peace activists, Brian Terrell of Catholic Peace Ministries, Patti McKee, former director of the Iowa Peace Network, and, Elton Davis, member of the Catholic Worker House, were subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury. A fourth person, Wendy Vasquez, a peace activist who visited Iraq in 2002, was subpoenaed on February 5, 2004.

Also subpoenaed were the membership and meeting records of the Drake University chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild, and Drake University’s records of those who attended a university conference, “Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home!”

The conference, which was widely publicized and a portion of which was televised, met in Des Moines on Saturday, November 16, 2003. The next day, some of the people who had attended the conference protested outside the Iowa National Guard Armory in Johnston, Iowa. A dozen people were arrested on state charges of trespassing, including two of those subpoenaed; another woman, a Grinnell College librarian, was charged with misdemeanor assault, a charge she denies.

FBI Targeting Colleges as Terrorist Institutions?
The subpoenas were served by a Polk County Sheriff deputy who is attached to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. On February 6, 2004, the government obtained a gag order, citing concerns regarding student privacy, preventing anyone connected with Drake University from disclosing the “existence or contents of the subpoena.” The deputy’s affiliation with the FBI task force and the secrecy surrounding the investigation led to concerns that the subpoenas were part of a terrorism investigation.

On February 9, 2004, Stephen Patrick O’Meara, a prosecutor for the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Iowa, released a statement clarifying the scope of the grand jury inquiry, and denying reports it was a terrorism investigation. O’Meara stated that the investigation had been narrowed to focus only on the potential violation of federal law or a prior agreement to violate federal law.

The “violation of federal law” refers to the government’s claim that on November 17, the same day as the protest, someone attempted to enter the perimeter of Camp Dodge, a National Guard base a quarter of a mile from the site of the armory protest. The demonstrators said they were unaware of any attempt to enter the perimeter of Camp Dodge.

After Public Protests US Drops Subpoenas
On February 10, 2004, after widespread public criticism of the investigation from peace activists, civil libertarians, and Congress members, all of the subpoenas were withdrawn without further government comment.

The government’s use of subpoenas to harass law-abiding citizens engaged in constitutionally protected activities–free speech and right to assembly–is extremely troubling. So are the subpoenas issued for the membership records of the National Lawyers Guild and identification of people attending the conference. These investigations, conducted in secret, chill First Amendment activities and dredge up memories of “guilt by association.”

An Emerging Pattern of Abuse
Unfortunately, the most recent government action is not an isolated event but part of an emerging pattern of use and abuse of laws and regulations meant to protect the liberty of US citizens.

In May 2002, Attorney General Ashcroft announced the elimination of regulations that prevented the FBI from monitoring “open to the public” events without a specific cause for investigation. In November 2003, the New York Times reported on a leaked FBI memo, which acknowledged the FBI has been collecting information and tracking anti-war protestors, but did not possess any information that such groups were planning violent activity.

Visit FCNL’s Civil Liberties and Human Rights web site to learn more about civil liberties issues.

• Now is the time to make the protection of constitutional rights an important campaign issue in the 2004 elections.

• You can write letters to the editor of your local newspaper, organize delegations to your congressperson’s district office, or hold local candidate forums. Visit FCNL’s grassroots web page for tips on these activities

• There is also an active national grassroots movement working to pass city, county, and statewide resolutions to designate these places “Civil Liberties Safe Zones.” Check out the Bill of Rights Defense Committee’s national web site to find out what is happening in your city, county, or state.