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November 7 , 2003

For Professor Christopher Pyle, the Patriot Act is Déjà-Vu

Photo: Nancy Palmieri

Christopher Pyle

For Christopher Pyle, professor of politics, talking to the press about constitutional rights is his “night job.” He gets several calls a week from publications such as the Washington Post and Congressional Quarterly to share his views on controversial legal issues. Questions about the Patriot Act, adopted in the wake of the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, have recalled the Watergate era, when he investigated government spying on civilian politics for congressional committees.

In the late 1960s, Pyle was an army captain teaching constitutional law at the U.S. Army Intelligence School in Fort Holabird, Maryland. In that capacity, he learned about the army’s domestic spying operation, which involved 1,500 plainclothes military personnel spying on antiwar and civil rights protesters across the country. Pyle disclosed that surveillance in 1970 in two award-winning articles and went on to recruit 125 former intelligence agents who testified about the surveillance in Con-gress and in court, provided information for hundreds of news articles, and appeared in several television documentaries. Their disclosures eventually forced the army to destroy its files on political protesters and disband the U.S. Army Intel-ligence Command.

In 1971 Pyle told the New York Times that he decided to reveal the domestic surveillance program “because [the army] had created the apparatus of a police state. These were well-intentioned men who were obeying orders and trying to please their superior officers, but I was worried about what other, and evil, men might do with it.” As a consultant to Senator Sam J. Ervin’s Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, he learned of the FBI’s program of anonymous “dirty tricks,” including an effort to drive the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide.

Pyle’s whistle-blowing did not sit well with the military, which put him on President Nixon’s “enemies list.” His taxes were audited, and efforts were made to defame his reputation and monitor his mail. But Pyle continued his investigations for Senator Frank Church’s Select Committee on Intelligence, which forced an end to most of the spying by 1976.

That was then. Now, Pyle said, “the walls we built between military intelligence and civilian law enforcement, and between the FBI and the CIA, are being destroyed. The Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures lies in a coma, while dozens of government agencies are laboring to develop a police state apparatus that is more extensive, intrusive, and unrestrained than anything we exposed in the 1970s.”

Pyle spends much of his time these days writing and lecturing against the Patriot Act, the detention of aliens and citizens without trial, and government plans to replace constitutional courts with ad hoc military tribunals. He is pleased to see students speaking out against the Patriot Act and helping to found a Five College chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.


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