Commentary

Obama Tramples Civil Liberties

Many Americans may not remember, if they ever knew, that toward the end of the Bush administration, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Michael Muka sey so greatly expanded the “Guidelines for Domestic FBI Operations” that now, in Barack Obama’s presidency, we have essentially returned to the reign of J. Edgar Hoover, who was convinced that a citizen’s right to a private life and to his or her own thoughts could be ignored for national security.

The FBI, with no objection from President Obama, can conduct a “threat assessment” — an investigation — on any of us without a judicial warrant or any articulable suspicion of criminal activity. During J. Edgar Hoover’s time, there was much public protest and reporting on his erasing of our Fourth Amendment’s “right of the people to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Because of my reporting on Hoover’s shelving of the Constitution, two FBI agents knocked on my door. Since they did not have a subpoena, I told them they would have to first see my lawyers at the ACLU, at the time a few blocks up the street from where I lived. They left and I never heard from them again, but later found I had an FBI file consisting mainly of newspaper clips of my reporting.

Now, however, even though these new FBI guidelines also permit its agents to take into account race and ethnicity in their “threat assessment,” there is no commotion among the citizenry about being under increasingly pervasive surveillance since 9/11. And although Mueller, FBI director since September 2001, had little more than two years left in his 10-year tenure when Obama took office, Mueller is to remain securely in place.

Startlingly, although of very limited interest to the press, when Director Mueller was testifying on July 28 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he actually told Illinois Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin that before any FBI surveillance can take place, there must be some suspicion of wrongdoing. Somebody in the FBI must have whispered a correction to him because later, he sent Durbin a note saying he had misspoken. He has also said wrongly that race never is a factor in a “threat assessment.”

Well, he’s so busy looking after our national security, this FBI director, like the much noisier J. Edgar Hoover, has never been a stickler about his agents’ concern for the Bill of Rights.

For example, on July 28, the AP’s Pete Yost reported that, the day before, the ACLU asked “FBI field offices in 29 states and Washington, D.C, to turn over records related to the bureau’s collection of data on race and ethnicity.” And, not at all surprisingly, “the FBI is still refusing to make public portions of the guide that deal with sending agents or informants into houses of worship and political gatherings.”

If you go to political gatherings, are you going to be tracked just for being there, let alone for what you say? Like J. Edgar Hoover, Mueller isn’t going to tell you which political gatherings are on his list — nor will Obama tell him to. And during his confirmation hearing, Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder said:

“The guidelines are necessary because the FBI is changing its mission, going from a pure investigative agency to one that deals with national security.” That these limitless guidelines are kept from any judge’s scrutiny didn’t bother our attorney general or his boss.

But Holder did assure us that he would “see how these guidelines work in operation.” I’m still waiting, Mr. Attorney General.

The year before he was nominated, I heard Holder, during a speech before the Constitution Project in Washington, as he condemned President George W. Bush, saying: “I never thought that I would see that a president would act in direct defiance of federal law by authorizing warrantless [National Security Agency] surveillance of American citizens.”

Yet here is our chief law enforcement officer endorsing President Obama’s approval of unbounded warrantless surveillance under “Guidelines for Domestic FBI Operations” — along with Obama’s hearty support of the now much more expanded warrantless NSA surveillance of American citizens under the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, which then-Sen. Obama pledged he would filibuster, and then signed as president.

Moving into positions of power does indeed often corrupt previously cherished principles. Consider former congressman and Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff, Leon Panetta. Before becoming part of this current administration, Panetta wrote: “How did we transform from champions of human dignity and individual rights into a nation of armchair torturers? One word: fear. Then what’s wrong with a little waterboarding? The simple answer is the rule of law.”

And where is Panetta today? He is President Obama’s director of the CIA. He has continued CIA “renditions” that used to send terrorism suspects to countries known for torture. Why is he continuing renditions? He won’t say. That’s classified. He does say that he rejects punishment of any CIA agents involved in what a then inspector general of the CIA found to be torture. They, Panetta emphasized, were following orders that lawfully, at the time, came from on high. Orders under our rule of law?

Next week: President Obama and Robert Mueller are insisting that the FBI get more warrantless surveillance powers to look into your electronic “communication transactional” Internet records in national security investigations. Like maybe all the websites you visit, or with whom you and your computer socialize on the web.

Why worry if you have nothing you want to hide? Don’t you trust your government? It’s not as if J. Edgar Hoover were still in the FBI’s Washington headquarters named after him — but aren’t his successors keeping faith with him? I doubt that many voters in the midterm elections will be asking that question. Many of us don’t have the time to look into our history. We find out what’s going on now through blogs and cable TV shows we agree with. Will the FBI eventually want to know which ones?

Nat Hentoff is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.