[Julia A. Shearson is executive director of the Cleveland Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.]
The February 26, 2009 revelation in the Los Angeles Times that FBI domestic intelligence informant and ex-convict Craig Monteilh and others were paid handsomely to spy on Muslim Americans in their houses of worship in Southern California should come as no surprise. Such domestic intelligence gathering has a history in the United States.
The annals of modern domestic surveillance in America are contained in the massive 1976 Church Committee Reports of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The reports, drafted by the Senate in the wake of the Watergate scandal, should have ended domestic intelligence abuses, but in the post-9/11 climate, their warnings and descriptions of crimes against liberty go unheeded.
The chapter entitled “The Use of Informants in FBI Domestic Intelligence Investigations” begins: “Men may be without restraints upon their liberty; they may pass to and fro at pleasure: but if their steps are tracked by spies and informers, their words noted down for crimination, their associates watched as conspirators—who shall say that they are free?”
This quote was borrowed from Sir Thomas May, the nineteenth-century author of The Constitutional History of England. May railed against the use of such spying practices by “continental despotisms” and claimed that “the freedom of a country may be measured by its immunity from this baleful agency.”
The Church reports, available on the Internet, are worth reading today in light of the FBI’s consolidation of domestic intelligence powers in the waning days of the Bush administration. Indeed, the December 1, 2008, issuance of the new investigative guidelines by Attorney General Mukasey was a major step in reconstituting the FBI as the United States’ premier domestic intelligence agency with the Department of Homeland Security and the Joint Terrorism Task Forces as their force multipliers on the ground.
We may be safer now because of this, but at what price for liberty? The new post-9/11 domestic intelligence regime, coupled with immense power, information technology, lack of congressional curiosity and lax Department of Justice oversight, has put our Bill of Rights in peril.
In short, the FBI has been sent headlong into what former vice president Cheney calls the “tough, mean, dirty, nasty business” of keeping the country safe from terrorists. But the problem is the FBI cannot serve two masters: it cannot both serve the Constitution and get into the domestic intelligence trenches. History proves this. (More)