by Tony Harris
In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, there have been calls for the expansion of FBI powers to investigate terrorist activity in the United States and to relax restrictions courts face in prosecuting suspected terrorists. Several legislators, most notably Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS), have proposed untying the hands of the FBI in its investigations of terrorist organizations. What does this mean? The presupposition is that the FBI is too constrained to do its job effectively. Let's examine those constraints. The Current FBI Guidelines The current FBI mandate says that "A domestic security/terrorism investigation may be initiated when the facts or circumstances reasonably indicate that two or more persons are engaged in an enterprise for the purpose of furthering political or social goals wholly or in part through activities that involve violence and a violation of the criminal laws of the United States."1 This means that the FBI can gather intelligence on groups and infiltrate them if it appears that they are on the road to committing a crime, but haven't yet broken any laws. According to Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, even if there are no reasonable indications of potential crimes, a preliminary inquiry is permitted under existing guidelines. Given these facts, it appears that the purpose of expanding FBI powers is to allow spying on groups not associated in any way with criminal activity. Or, in other words, everybody. Such proponents must believe that it would be extremely unlikely for the FBI to take an interest in noncriminal organizations, or that such power would only be used to sift out the criminal from the noncriminal. However, before the current guidelines were in place, the FBI did indeed take it upon itself to investigate and even undermine groups which were not engaged in any criminal activity. The FBI Before the Current Guidelines On March 8, 1971, a group called the "Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI" broke into a Pennsylvania FBI office and removed over 1000 classified documents. An entire third of the material stolen covered political activity (200 left-wing groups, 2 right-wing groups, and 10 cases involving immigrants).2 It soon became apparent that the FBI had been conducting a massive counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) against dissident Americans since 1968. The Citizens' Commission began releasing copies of the stolen documents to the press and to the subjects of investigation. The subjects were various organizations involved in the antiwar and civil rights movements. Student groups, individual students and professors were also targeted. Among them were the Students for a Democratic Society, the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the Urban League, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, the Progressive Labor Party, and the Congress of Racial Equity.3 The FBI was able to acquire court orders to investigate the financial records of individuals who were clearly not involved in any criminal activity. These persons were also subject to wire-tapping. Many groups were successfully infiltrated. Provocateurs were sent in to disrupt activities of these organizations and to develop suspicions and hostilities between coalitions by introducing false information. Information was sent to the media to discredit certain groups and individuals.4 National exposure and public censure was so intense in the spring of 1971 that J. Edgar Hoover felt compelled to terminate all COINTELPRO activities. The FBI After the Promulgation of the Current Guidelines The current guidelines were issued in response to COINTELPRO activities in 1976 by Attorney General Edward H. Levi and reissued in 1983 by Attorney General William French Smith. Interestingly, the FBI was not overly hampered by these constraints in the account that follows. In 1981, the FBI began investigating CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. CISPES is a non-profit organization which sends money, educators, farm equipment, construction materials, medical supplies, and the like to peasant organizations in El Salvador. From 1980 until 1992, the country was embroiled in a civil war in which government forces battled a peasant insurrection. CISPES also actively opposed US foreign policy, which was to support the oligarchy which controlled the government. The regime was characterized by wide-scale human rights violations and outright massacres of civilian populations. This has been widely and well documented.5 Training for some battalions of the Salvadoran National Guard was provided in the US. At its height, US funds poured into the country at the rate of a million dollars a day. There is no question that the peasant uprising benefited from CISPES activities, and it is widely suspected that peasant militant factions, most notably the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front),6 benefited as well. The FBI had reason to believe that CISPES shared cadre with the FMLN and began an investigation to determine whether this was the case, specifically, whether CISPES was in violation of the US Foreign Agents Registration Act. No evidence was found and the case was dropped. In 1983, a new investigation of CISPES began, this time for suspected participation in international terrorism. Here we approach what is interesting about the CISPES case. US Code states that violent acts directed either against a civilian population or government for the purpose of coercion are considered terrorism.7 In this instance, both the government and rebel forces fit the definition. Strangely, only the once-removed supporters of the rebel side was targeted. The guidelines by which the FBI investigates such cases are classified.8 We can only guess, based on the nature of the investigation. The primary source of evidence against CISPES came from a Salvadoran expatriate named Frank Varelli. Mr. Varelli had substantial right-wing connections in El Salvador, and was able to set up direct channels of communication between the FBI and the Salvadoran National Guard.9 However, one year after the FBI hired him, they determined that his information was unreliable.10 Beyond accusing CISPES of terrorist ties, Mr. Varelli claimed that CISPES was plotting to assassinate President Reagan and that certain liberal members of Congress were terrorists.11 Not only was Mr. Varelli retained for three years after his information became suspect, but the investigation widened to include over 100 groups.12 Included were organizations such as the Roman Catholic Maryknoll Sisters (Chicago, Oklahoma City), the United Automobile Workers (Cleveland), the National Education Association (Cleveland), and the Women's Rape Crisis Center (Norfolk).13 Agents were also authorized to investigate students at Florida State University. A theology professor from Xavier University, who had no involvement with CISPES, but who had visited El Salvador as a member of a church group, was targeted as part of the CISPES counter intelligence operation.14 No arrests for any criminal or terrorist activity resulted from the FBI investigation. No evidence was produced showing that CISPES provided military assistance to the FMLN.15 The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reports: From March 1983 until June 1985, the FBI conducted an international terrorism investigation of CISPES on the basis of allegations that should have not been considered credible, broadened the investigation even beyond the scope justified by those allegations, and continued the investigation after the available information had clearly fallen below the standards required by the applicable guidelines.16 We must assume that the FBI may have had justification in beginning its investigation of CISPES. However, the zeal and the scope of the operation suggest that simple jurisprudence does not alone account for their motivations. The facts of the case are far too exaggerated. We can only wonder what role CISPES' effective opposition to Administration foreign policy played in Bureau priorities. Current Proposals Given the FBI's underwhelming display of self-restraint in the past, one is left rather confused by the debate surrounding their tied hands. But this topic was limited to the selection of appropriate targets of investigation. Recent anti-terrorism proposals made by the President concern granting expanded powers of investigation once targets have been chosen. The following features appear in President Clinton's proposals:17 ¥ 1000 new Federal agents. ¥ Establishment of a counter-terrorism center under FBI direction. ¥ Increased financing of informers and intelligence gathering operations. ¥ Permitting the use of military experts in dealing with chemical or biological weapons "in very limited circumstances".18 ¥ Legislation requiring the use of "taggants" in explosives. These microscopic particles allow the constituents of a bomb to be traced after the explosion.19 ¥ Increase punishments for terrorist acts. An attack against any federal employee will be included if the crime is connected to the employee's official duties. ¥ Amending the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 [P.L. 99-508] This would authorize "emergency" electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists, including roving wiretaps, and would make a court order unnecessary before obtaining records of local telephone calls. "Under current guidelines, wire taps may only be used with the consent of a Federal judge."20 ¥ Provide funds for a law that requires telephone companies to install and maintain electronic surveillance equipment for use by law enforcement officials.21 ¥ Require hotel-motel operators, airlines, bus companies and other transportation barriers to provide records to the FBI in national security cases. These records now are provided to state and local law enforcement, but the FBI must get them voluntarily.22 ¥ Allow the FBI to obtain credit reports for counterintelligence and counter-terrorism cases. The Supreme Court has already ruled that once a person has disclosed this information to a third party, such as telephone company or hotel, then the right to privacy has been waived. As discussed at the outset of this article, there have been proposals from other quarters to allow the FBI to spy on groups not involved in any criminal activity. President Clinton did not propose changing these guidelines. There are seven pieces of legislation pending before Congress which relate to the proposals made by President Clinton. The two proposals made directly by the Administration are the Omnibus Counter-Terrorism Act of 1995 and the Anti-Terrorism Amendments of 1995. The latter was unavailable at the time this article was prepared. Omnibus Counter-terrorism Act of 1995 The most ominous proposal is detailed in the Omnibus Counter-terrorism Act of 1995 (HR 896). In a nutshell, it is designed to make what CISPES did in the 1980s illegal and what the FBI did to them legal. The President may name a group a terrorist organization, or an individual a terrorist. This designation is not subject to review and a defendant may not question the validity of the designation in court. Presidents may change their mind if there are economic or political reasons for not designating a terrorist organization as such. The PLO is named specifically here, even though the US itself is providing development aid to the Palestine Authority in the Occupied Territories. Any representative of a terrorist organization is subject to special proceedings. The Secretary of State or the Attorney General may declare a person to be a representative, and that determination is not subject to court review. A person is considered a terrorist if they provide material support to a terrorist organization, or provide information about a potential target of terrorism to said group. One cannot solicit membership for such a group, nor do any fundraising. One may solicit funds under a license granted by the Treasury Department, provided that the funds are intended to be used exclusively for religious, charitable, literary, or educational purposes. The person must be able to provide records of how the money is spent within two days of a request by the State Department. Of course, if a license is denied, the person has been self-identified as a potential terrorist and is subject to arrest under the provisions of this bill. Pursuant to investigations concerning fund-raising, the Department of Justice and the Treasury Department can issue their own subpoenas and hold their own hearings. In subsequent criminal trials, the prosecution may stop any line of questioning that may encroach on information the government has deemed as classified. Consider this applied to a real example. In El Salvador, the US supported a government which was widely and uncontroversially involved in terrorist activities against its own citizenry, involving the operation of death squads, "disappearances," mass murders-practically the complete suite of available means. However, it was the peasant uprising against this repression that was labeled by the US government as "terrorist." (Notice that it is not just the case that non-governmental combatants are the terrorists, as US support for the Contras in Nicaragua's civil war shows.) Americans who publicly expressed horror and shame about US involvement in El Salvador came under the scrutiny of the FBI. CISPES, which (presumably) indirectly supplied aid to militant peasants, was targeted with a vigor difficult to understand given the evidence available. Had this legislation existed then, these Americans would have gone to jail. The politicians who provided military and economic aid to El Salvador's ruling elite would not have been so prosecuted. Most people have been convinced that more aggressive measures against terrorism are required. However, the autocratic manner in which these measures are to be implemented has fallen under severe criticism. COINTELPRO, Watergate, and Iran-Contra are still fresh in the memories of many Americans hearing the government response. And despite the seeming necessity, many are having difficulty forgetting. 1 From the Federal guidelines for domestic security investigations. Adopted in 197 6 by Attorney General Edward H. Levi and reissued in 1983 by Attorney General William French Smith. 2 Another third were manuals and routine forms. The remainder concerned crime like bank robberies and interstate theft. Desertion, draft evasion and gambling also appeared. Bill Kovach, "Stolen FBI Papers Described as Largely of a Political Nature," New York Times, 13 May 1971, P. 18. 3 Davis, James. Spying on America: The FBI's Domestic Counterintelligence Program, New York: Praeger), p.131. 4 Churchill, W. & Wall, Jim. The COINTELPRO Papers, (Boston: South End Press) 5 Report on human rights in El Salvador (1982) compiled by Americas Watch Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union. (New York: Vintage Books), 1982. Didion, Joan. (1983) Salvador (New York : Simon and Schuster) El Salvador's Decade Of Terror : Human Rights Since the Assassination of Archbishop Romero (1991) Americas Watch, (New Haven : Yale University Press) 6 Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberacion Nacional. 7 International terrorism, as defined by USC Section 1801(p.100), must: (1) involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or any State; (2) appear to be intended- (a) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (b) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (c) to affect the conduct of a government by assassination or kidnapping; and (3) occur totally outside the United States, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are carried out, the presons they appear intended to coerce or intimidate, or the local ion which thier perpetrators operate or seek asylum. 8"FBI Papers show wide surveillance of Reagan Critics," New York Times, 28 Jan. 1988. 9"Documents Appear to Contradict Sessions on Probe," Boston Globe, 29 Nov. 1989. 10 Ibid. 11 Waller, Michael. (1991) The Third Current of Revolution: Inside the "North American Front" of El Salvador's Guerilla War, (Lamham, Maryland: University Press), p.181. 12 FBI Papers show wide surveillance of Reagan Critics," New York Times, 28 Jan. 1988. 13 Ibid. 14"FBI Stand is Contradicted on Surveillance of Policy Foes" New York Times, 14 Feb 1988. 15 FBI Papers show wide surveillance of Reagan Critics," New York Times, 28 Jan. 1988. 16 The FBI and CISPES, Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence, United States Senate, with additional views, 14 July 1989, p. 97. 17 All sources of legislation and commentary: Legislate information services, legislate.com 18 Article 12301,Legi-Slate, Wednesday, May 3, 1995 19 Quoted from Article 11701, Legi-Slate, Thursday, April 27, 1995. 20 Ibid., quoted. 21 Ibid., quoted. 22 Ibid., quoted.