In announcing revised intelligence-gathering guidelines for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Attorney General John Ashcroft assured the nation: "I don't have the power to erode the Constitution. I wouldn't do it if I could."
Yet, in reacting to the return of the FBI to J. Edgar Hoover's version of compliance with the Bill of Rights, Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner, one of the more conservative members of Congress, and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, protested: "We can have security without throwing respect for civil liberties into the trash heap. We don't have to go back to the bad old days when the FBI was spying on people like Martin Luther King."
Those "bad old days" encompassed Hoover's COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program) from 1956 to 1971, when the FBI monitored, infiltrated, and often disrupted civil rights, antiwar, and church organizations without any evidence or reasonable suspicion that they had committed or were planning criminal activities.
Now, as John Ashcroft declares, "We don't need any leads or preliminary investigations" to send disguised FBI agents into public meetings, churches, mosques, or any public place "under the same terms and conditions of any member of the public."
We civilians do not have any expectation of privacy in a public space, but we also do not expect to be spied on for what is said at a meeting, or what we say, nor do we expect the amiable person next to us to put us into an FBI database. Just as Ashcroft did not consult Congress in violating our First and Fourth Amendment rights in unleashing the FBI, neither did he involve Congress in his order to have FBI agents listen in on lawyer-client conversations in federal prisons-thereby shredding the Sixth Amendment. As Roger Pilon, the Cato Institute's protector of the Constitution, notes, "This is now an executive branch that thinks it's a law unto itself."
Responding to the return of COINTELPRO, the Northampton, Massachusetts, Bill of Rights Defense Committee said: "Now Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Bush, like Mr. Nixon before them, have unilaterally placed in jeopardy the right to organize peacefully and legally. Not only is this unconstitutional, but it will put our communities at risk. Who is sitting next to us at City Council, church, peace or ACLU meetings? And what will that mean to the outcome of that meeting or our individual security?"
The Northampton Bill of Rights Defense Committee is one of a number of modern-day versions of the Committees of Correspondence, started by the Sons of Liberty in Boston in 1756, that spread the news throughout the Colonies about such British attacks on their liberties as the general search warrant that allowed customs officers to turn homes and offices and colonists upside down in pursuit of contraband.
This February, in Northampton, Massachusetts, some three hundred doctors, nurses, lawyers, social workers, retirees, teachers, and students organized the Bill of Rights Defense Committee to protect the residents of the town from the provisions of the Bush-Ashcroft USA Patriot Act and subsequent executive orders that-in the language of a resolution passed unanimously by the Northampton Town Council in May-"threaten key rights guaranteed to U.S. citizens and noncitizens by the Bill of Rights and the Massachusetts Constitution." Such as: "freedom of speech, assembly, proceedings, and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures."
The USA Patriot Act radically limits judicial supervision of FBI raids of homes and offices where the occupants aren't there, as well electronic surveillance of e-mail and other computer communications.
Similar defense committees have been formed in Amherst and Leverett, Massachusetts, as well by the city councils of Ann Arbor, Michigan; Denver, Colorado; and Berkeley, California. Other towns and cities have contacted the Northampton patriots to find out more about organizing their own committees. (Updates on these present-day Committees of Correspondence, and organizing them are on the Northampton committee's Web site: www.gjf.org/NBORDC.)
At the Leverett, Massachusetts, town meeting, Don Ogden, who offered the resolution, said: "It is truly Orwellian doublespeak to call such unpatriotic efforts [as Ashcroft's] a 'patriotic act.'"
And at the Amherst town meeting, before the unanimous vote passing the resolution to protect those citizens from the attorney general, Anne Awad made a pertinent point-that was probably dutifully communicated to Ashcroft by the FBI-"As members of the Select Board, we want to know that all residents and visitors to our town feel safe. We do not want to support profiling of particular types of people. If one group is viewed suspiciously today, another group will be added to the list tomorrow."
In initiating this new American Revolution, the citizens of Northampton state plainly: "We reach back to the fundamental ideology and approach of the founders of our nation: local critique and resistance to violations of freedom. We recommend the same to all communities of concerned citizens."
As Sam Adams, an original member of the Sons of Liberty, and a bold signer of the Declaration of Independence, said in 1771: "A true patriot would keep the attention of his fellow citizens awake to their grievances, and not allow them to rest till the causes of their just complaints are removed. . . . Our ship is in the hands of pilots . . . who are steering directly under full sail to a rock. The whole crew may see [this course to violate our liberties] in full view if they look the right way."
Quiet as the national press has been in ignoring the news of this revival of the Committees of Correspondence, Sam Adams's basic advice is being heeded by more and more Americans. As quoted in historian Pauline Maier's From Resistance to Revolution, Adams emphasized that "colonists must henceforth primarily depend upon themselves for the defense of their liberties."1 So must we.
1. Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 (New York: W.W. Norton, orig. ed. 1972, paperback ed., 1991).
Nat Hentoff is a regular columnist for the Village Voice, Legal Times, Washington Times, and Editor & Publisher, a United Media syndicated columnist, and the author of Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press).