Pyle in the Hartford Courant: "Domestic Spying - Again?"

Thursday, November 21, 2002 - 12:00

This opinion piece ran in the Hartford Courant on Wednesday, November 20, 2002.

The Pentagon is planning to use computers to investigate hundreds of thousands of law-abiding Americans. Why? On the odd chance one might be a terrorist.

The person in charge of this new dragnet? John M. Poindexter, the former national security adviser who secretly sold weapons to Middle Eastern terrorists in the 1980s and, as a result, was convicted of defrauding the U.S. government, lying to Congress and destroying evidence.

That law enforcement agencies would search for terrorists makes sense. Terrorists are criminals. But why the Army? It is a criminal offense for Army personnel to become directly involved in civilian law enforcement. Are they seeking to identify anti-war demonstrators, whom they harassed in the 1960s? Are they getting ready to round up more civilians for detention without trial, as they did to Japanese Americans during World War II? Is counterterrorism becoming the sort of investigative obsession that anti-Communism was in the 1950s and 1960s, with all the bureaucratic excesses and abuses that entailed?

This isn't the first time that the military has slipped the bounds of law to spy on civilians. In the late 1960s, it secretly collected personal information on more than a million law-abiding Americans in a misguided effort to quell anti-war demonstrations, predict riots and discredit protesters. I know because in 1970, as a former captain in Army intelligence, I disclosed the existence of that program.

Back then, the Army employed more than 1,500 plainclothes agents, coast to coast, to watch every demonstration of 20 people or more. The chances that any one of those protests would grow into a riot so large that regular Army troops would be needed to restore order were remote in the extreme, but Army intelligence wasn't taking any chances. Its plainclothes agents infiltrated civil rights protests, misdirected busloads of anti-war demonstrators, set up phony news organizations and engaged in a paranoid effort to prove that communists were stirring up opposition to racial segregation and the war in Vietnam.

After I testified against the surveillance in 1971, Sen. Sam J. Ervin's Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights hired me to write two book-length reports on the Army's spying. To do this, I had to read the contents of six Army computers containing spy reports. What struck me most was not the harm that any one of those (often inaccurate) reports could do by itself, but the harm that could be done if the government ever gained untraceable access to the financial records and private communications of its critics.

In 1975, while working for Sen. Frank Church's Select Committee on Intelligence, I became exquisitely aware of just how nasty domestic intelligence agencies can become. J. Edgar Hoover's FBI was the worst. It not only engaged in thousands of illegal wiretaps, mail openings and burglaries, it also blackmailed members of Congress, defamed government critics and even tried to drive the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide by threatening to disclose embarrassing tape recordings of his extramarital affairs.

Army intelligence was nowhere near as bad as the FBI, but it responded to my criticisms by putting me on Nixon's "enemies list," which meant a punitive tax audit. It also tried to monitor my mail and prevent me from testifying before Congress by spreading false stories that I had fathered illegitimate children. I often wondered what the intelligence community could do to people like me if it really became efficient.

We may be about to find out. Under Poindexter's plan, the Army's Intelligence and Security Command, headquartered at Fort Belvoir, Va., will use high-powered computers to secretly search the e-mail messages, credit-card purchases, phone records and bank statements of hundreds of thousands of people on the chance that they might be associated with, or sympathetic to, terrorists.

Much of INSCOM'S information will be sent to the Army's new Northern Command, which is supposed to provide perimeter security, crowd control and technical assistance to civilian agencies in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Nothing in the Northern Command's mission requires it to keep dossiers on anti-war demonstrators or Muslim Americans, but the Northern Command expects to receive so many reports on individual terrorists and their sympathizers that it is planning to employ 150 people just to read them.

The scale of this operation suggests that the Army is not just preparing to clear streets, defuse bombs and provide emergency services.

It's too early to tell how far the Army will actually go with its plans, but it is not too early to start asking questions.

Christopher H. Pyle teaches constitutional law and civil liberties at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.