Panic and fear among politicians, media pundits and citizens from coast to coast in the post September 11th period has created a political climate that has permitted the White House and the U.S. Department of Justice to enact a series of laws and policies that have not only systematically stripped away many of our constitutional freedoms.
With the complicity of a bipartisan Congress, these draconian measures have included the expansion of wiretapping and secret search powers under the U.S. Patriot Act; the Attorney General’s directives ordering broad questioning sweeps of young men of Middle Eastern and South Asian origin; the erosion of attorney-client privilege, media freedom and immigrants’ rights; the justification of racial profiling as a legitimate police practice and the dismantling of regulations governing intelligence-gathering procedures.
Tacit, but undeniable, has also been an understanding that the implementation of these new measures would be racialized, with the heaviest burden falling on people of color. When the Bush administration announced the introduction of Operation TIPS, however, it may have crossed the line of what had been viewed as acceptable sacrifice of constitutional protections in the name of the war on terrorism. And one of those lines that the Bush administration may have inadvertently crossed, is to open the gated community of White America to the police state tactics which have long operated in communities with large Asian, Latino and Black populations.
Last month when the FBI unilaterally announced that it was propagating new guidelines that would extend far-reaching powers to its agents to monitor the internet, snoop in Mosques and keep an eye on people everywhere from the local library to a protest demonstration, the news precipitated reactions within the Black community ranging from disbelief to anger and fear accompanied by calls to resist this unconstitutional encroachment on civil liberties and the right to dissent. In the media and among most politicians, however, there was little resistance and only a few civil libertarians and some left commentators raised their voices in protest.
The unspoken but tacit understanding was that racial profiling, particularly among Arab Americans, South Asians and Muslims would be the main FBI targets. That it would undermine the recent exposures of police misconduct concerning racial profiling was a welcome collateral benefit to law enforcement agencies at the local and national levels. Within the African American community, however, the specter of the FBI snoop program, Cointelpro, is a vivid memory across the Black political spectrum and this community led the way in protesting unleashing an unrestrained FBI upon the populace.
“The Administration’s continued defiance of constitutional safeguards seems to have no end in sight,” stated the dean of the Black Caucus and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee John Conyers (D. Mi.). “Any government effort to institutionalize the same powers that allowed the FBI to wrongfully spy on the activities of civil rights organizations and disclose information on the private affairs of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he continued, “would constitute an embarrassing step backwards for civil liberties in this country.”
This concern was actually mild compared to an editorial by Bill Tatum, publisher and Board Chair of the N.Y. Amsterdam News, which called the FBI “totally corrupt.” He continued in the June 3rd editorial, “Once upon a time, the FBI was said to have had the bad guys at the top of their most-wanted list. That was true, except for the bad guys who were rich and famous. . .” Linda Burnham, Director of the Berkeley-based Women of color Resource Center, reminds us “we know from our own history how readily the government resorts to spying and disruption to squash legitimate protest and we will all live to regret the broad surveillance powers being assumed by the FBI.”
A Black person who lived through the civil rights battles of the 1960s and 1970s could not help but see the revitalized specter of Cointelpro, the counter-intelligence policy carried out by the FBI against all political dissent, and particularly against those involved in the racial justice movement. This disruptive and illegal activity by the FBI targeted not only groups like the Black Panther Party that called for a radical transformation of race and class relations but also groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or even more moderate formations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Cointelpro did not just collect data about people. It was a conscious program to neutralize political dissident. These activities included infiltrating African American groups and fomenting discord and antagonism among different groups and individuals, provoking marital difficulties for activists and politically motivated audits of IRS tax returns. Even more outrageous were FBI activities to instigate and suggest violent and illegal actions on the part of Black groups.
Clearly, if the rest of the nation had amnesia on FBI history and police informants, Black America did not. Now Operation TIPS – the Terrorism Information and Prevention System – appears to be functioning as a wake call for White America. All across the political spectrum voices are being raised in alarm to prevent its implementation because it appears to go “too far.” “Too far” it certainly goes and should Operation TIPS become law, the United States would be well on its way to establishing the scaffolding for a police state that mirrors the worst abuses of dictatorial regimes like Nazi Germany and specifically the Gestapo’s extensive network of police informers.
And like the Gestapo’s history, which first directed its repression and violence at the left and at the Jews and then encompassed all Germans, Operation TIPS exhibits few racial barriers. The Bush administration wants to implement a massive internal spying network by recruiting millions of informers to act as “extra eyes and ears for law enforcement” that would scout out “suspicious and potentially terrorist-related activity.”
One cannot help but be reminded of Nazi Germany and how people could be thrown in jail or worse simply on the word of a neighbor. , President Bush has proposed an initial recruitment of one million volunteers – letter carriers, utility workers, cable installers, and others whose jobs allow them access to private residences – to report “suspicious” activity. This would mean that peoples’ homes will be searched without cause or warrants, and it would also turn neighbor against neighbor and potentially generate thousands of unreasonable and unwarranted charges against innocent people, charges that would sap federal investigator resources.
The FBI has already admitted that its weaknesses lie not in its ability to gather information, but in its ability to analyze pertinent data that would result in the prevention of real terrorist activity.
And what about more sinister motives? What guarantees are there that personal grievances will not be turned into political charges of treason or terrorism? What if someone has a fight with a neighbor and wants to get them into trouble, not because of any real suspicion of terrorism, but because they are disliked? What if you are a racist and enter the home and they have a picture of Martin Luther King? Or even a picture of Frederick Douglass? (The poster of him that I own looks remarkably like Karl Marx.).
And this brings us to what constitutes suspicion? What about a poster that proclaims a message that the TIPS informant disagrees with or a religious icon other than Christian – does that become the basis for suspicion of terrorist sympathies?
A number of people are beginning to view the TIPS proposal as an outrageous invasion of privacy in the lives of innocent people, an incursion that threatens the U.S. way of life as much as the horrible destruction of lives and property that occurred on 9.11. A national firestorm has started to build against this program. Even among members of Congress, a distinct malaise can be discerned – a body where half its members received an “F” grade on a civil rights scorecard prepared by the NAACP for its national convention in Houston.
That malaise has expressed itself by a growing controversy on TIPS in Congress. One example is that House Republicans and Democrats, as part of the legislation creating the new Homeland Security Department, are supporting language proposed by House Majority Leader Richard Armey that would prohibit Operation TIPS.
Unfortunately, the Homeland Security legislation pending in the Senate does not include such TIPS prohibitions. So, unless the Senate acts specifically to kill the Terrorism Information and Prevention System, it could mean that TIPS would survive. It is not clear what the Senate will do, but it is likely to vote on the bill in the coming days, and the fate of this deeply repressive police state measure could very well rest with the Senate.
Unlike the U.S. Patriot Act and other repressive measures, however, Operation TIPS has not been able to racially code itself. And this could spell its ultimate failure because the Bush Administration is proposing a program that is perceived as likely to engulf a broader spectrum of whites in its insidious nets than the other racially-coded repressive measures have to date. And irrespective of the desires of the reactionaries that inhabit the White House today, the rest of the country is apparently not yet prepared to welcome fascism with open arms.
Frances M. Beal is a political columnist for the San Francisco Bay View newspaper and National Secretary of the Black Radical Congress. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org