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Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 2002 /8 Shevat, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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Who's that knocking at my door? -- The Christian Science Monitor has been publishing since 1908, and as a boy in Boston, I often visited its huge global map room, which taught me a lot about geography. The Monitor has instructed me for many years, most recently -- and rather dramatically -- by a Jan. 8 story filed by Kris Axtman in the paper's Houston bureau.

"Political dissent can bring federal agents to (your) door," she told of a visit by FBI agents and the Secret Service to Houston's Art Car Museum. They were investigating a tip that "anti-American activity" was going on there. They found, Axtman reported, "an exhibit on past U.S. covert operations and government secrets."

The museum's docent, Donna Huanca, asked her visitors, after they showed their badges and said why they had come, "What's anti-American about free speech?"

Barry Reingold of San Francisco had reason to ask the same question when two FBI agents announced themselves on the intercom at the residence of the 60-year-old retired phone company worker.

They told him that a fellow weightlifter at his gym had called the FBI to report that Reingold is a disloyal American. This, as Reingold told the Christian Science Monitor, is what led to the FBI's visit:

At the gym, "discussion had turned to bin Laden and what a horrible murderer he was. I said, 'Yeah, he's horrible and did a horrible thing, but Bush has nothing to be proud of. He is a servant of the big oil companies, and his only interest in the Middle East is oil.'"

The president has disproved that charge by his support of Israel and his criticism of Yasser Arafat, but some newspaper columnists and Democratic Party operatives have also spoken negatively of Bush's alleged ties to big oil companies. Will the FBI be knocking at their doors? Or, are only average citizens subject to in-person investigations of their loyalty to the United States?

In the Houston Art Car Museum, the federal agents were diligent in their probe. As the Christian Science Monitor quoted Donna Huanca, "the G-men puzzled over each art installation, sneering and saying things like, 'What's that supposed to mean?'"

The bureau might consider training its agents on how to decode abstract expressionism in painting. I can't.

In North Carolina, two Secret Service agents and a Raleigh police officer questioned A.J. Brown, a student at Durham Technical Community College, for 40 minutes in her doorway. She didn't let them into her apartment because they did not have a search warrant. She knew her constitutional rights.

But from the doorway, these specialists in un-American activities could see, as Kris Axtman reported, "a poster of George W. Bush holding a noose. It read, 'We hang on your every word.'" The noose was not around his neck. The poster was critical of Bush's unwavering support of the death penalty while he was governor of Texas.

Reacting to Axtman's story, Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington said, "It's a very frightening trend: that people are doing nothing more than expressing the very freedoms that we are fighting to preserve and find themselves with the FBI at the door."

What is more troubling is that Attorney General John Ashcroft is reintroducing the FBI's COINTELPRO operation that, from 1957 to 1971, monitored a wide range of religious and political anti-war and civil rights organizations. The FBI also infiltrated and, with false internal messages, disrupted some of them. In 1975, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities denounced COINTELPRO's violations of First Amendment rights.

On Dec. 3, The Wall Street Journal, reporting on the revival of COINTELPRO, noted that the FBI now will no longer have to obey "Justice Department regulations requiring agents to show probable cause that a crime was afoot before spying on political or religious organizations."

Meanwhile, The New York Times noted in a Dec. 12 front-page story on a Times-CBS poll that "Americans are willing to grant the government wide latitude in pursuing suspected terrorists but are wary of some of the Bush administration's recent counterrorism proposals and worried about the potential impact on civil liberties."

That impact is no longer only potential. If you're not careful in what you say or hang on your wall, the FBI may come calling. After agents cleared the critic of the president in his gym, he heard an agent say outside the door, "But we still need to do a report." That critic is now in the FBI's files.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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