It’s getting so you can’t even send a shout out to all your anarchists without raising federal hackles. In January, the Maine Civil Liberties Union announced that the FBI has secretly monitored the Maine Coalition for Peace and Justice, an alliance of around 60 local peace and environmental groups. The proof-positive comes from one e-mail turned over to the MCLU in response to a request for files submitted to the FBI last May. Only the Coalition had been flagged by the Feds, and only on this single e-mail from 2004, though the MCLU is still waiting for a response to info requests for Maine Veterans for Peace and Peace Action Maine.
The anti-capitalism e-mail in the FBI’s Coalition file is titled “US, Call for Anarchist Contingent at Million Worker March on October 17th, Washington DC!”
FBI monitoring of rallies, anarchist picnics, and any event “open to the public” is completely legal, thanks to former attorney general John Ashcroft, who during the post-9/11 high-alert culture chucked decades-old FBI restrictions against such monitoring. Without him, we probably never would have known anarchists are organized enough to form a contingent. Go figure.
The MCLU and its parent organization, the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City, say records like this prove the FBI is returning to practices common during the 1960s and 1970s, when the bureau under former director J. Edgar Hoover kept files on anti-Vietnam activists and well-meaning folk like the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. MCLU Executive Director Shenna Bellows calls it “a return to the bad old days.”
The Phoenix grabbed a cup of coffee with Bellows and MCLU staff attorney Zachary Heiden to find just how bad it is.
Phoenix: Does this one e-mail prove the FBI was watching the Maine Coalition for Peace and Justice? It’s not clear if the FBI obtained the e-mail through surveillance or if someone just sent it to the bureau.
Shenna Bellows: If this were a single incident it might not be news itself, but in the context of thousands of e-mails [from activist groups] submitted to the ACLU [by the FBI in response to a national request for information] we are concerned that this may indicate surveillance of the Maine Coalition for Peace and Justice.
Q: OK, so what can Mainers do to protect their freedom of speech?
Bellows: We’re asking people to continue to speak out when they disagree with the government’s policies. What we’re concerned about is the chilling effect [of government spying]. We’re also asking people to call on Congress to enact legislative checks and balances on this administration’s intelligence practices.
Q: Right, that makes sense. But say I’m a Maine protestor, an activist, and I have a couple of small kids. All of this talk about government spying coupled with the National Security Agency hearings and the possibility of being detained indefinitely without access to a lawyer under the USA PATRIOT Act, that’s got to scare the hell out of me.