George Bush had barely closed the cover on "The Pet Goat" that morning in September 2001 before his administration and its kindred spirits in Congress were looking for ways to leverage the new fear of terrorism into the green-light for a shopping list of intrusions into the civil liberties of ordinary Americans, a shopping list that had for the most part been languishing for years until the right moment might come along to push through such an un-American agenda.
Nat Hentoff chronicles the successful efforts of the NYCLU to crack open access to the files kept on nonviolent protestors--protesters who pose no danger, in other words, to anyone but the political standing of the government.
As NYCLU field director and legislative counsel Udi Ofer explains, this New York affiliate of the national ACLU is involved in educating activist groups on "their right to obtain information about their government surveillance files by filing federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and New York Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests."(Emphasis addedd.) Hentoff even wonders aloud if columnist Dave "I'm not making this up" Barry has his own file. (Keeping tabs on Barry and the Quakers. Feel safer yet?)
Accordingly, it will be possible for many of us to spy on such agents of Big Brother—and their interconnected databases—as the FBI, the Pentagon, and the New York City Police Department (and its technologically updated version of its former notorious "Red Squad," whose eager activities I used to chronicle in the Voice, and vice versa).
As the NYCLU reported on March 16, the program has filed Freedom of Information requests on behalf of itself and 14 New York political and religious organizations that the NYCLU has reason to believe are "of interest" to government spies. These groups and individuals include:
September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows; the American Friends Service Committee, upper New York State Area Office (the FBI has long been deeply suspicious of Quakers); Brooklyn Parents for Peace; the Buffalo War Resisters League; antiwar activist Leslie Cagan; the Council on American-Islamic Relations, New York Chapter; the Council of Peoples Organization; Metro Justice (Rochester); the New York Immigration Coalition; Peace Action of Central New York; People for the American Way—NY; People for Animal Rights (Syracuse); Veterans for Peace, Chapter 128; and the Western New York Peace Center (Buffalo)—and the NYCLU itself.
Curious about whether there's a study in black and white of your comings and goings enshrined in some manila folder?
As Ofer says, you can get a copy of the NYCLU's tool kit for individuals and organizations interested in filing Freedom of Information requests by contacting him at the New York Civil Liberties Union, 125 Broad Street, New York, NY 10004 (phone: 212-607-3300, ext. 342; web: nyclu.org). Also, for details and legal papers regarding the FOIA requests filed by ACLU affiliates around the country, including a list of clients, go to aclu.org/spyfiles.)Oregon angle: The ACLU of Oregon has been working for years on FOIA access to surveillance records on Oregonians, including members of such groups as:
Portland Peace and Justice Works, the Portland Peaceful Response Coalition, the Oregon Wildlife Federation, the American Friends Service Committee, In Defense of Animals, the Islamic Center of Portland and the ACLU of Oregon itself.And those Portlanders who worry that Mayor Potter's interest in revising the city's weak-mayor charter might be evidence of his secret lust for ultimate, panoptic power should remember that he refused to allow Portland police to participate in Joint Terrorism Task Force operations when it became clear that neither he nor the city attorney would be granted clearance to engage in appropriate oversight of the JTTF activities. (Oregon law prohibits the police from collecting files on the social, religious, or political activity of you or the organizations you belong to unless there's already evidence of criminal activity. No fishing trips.)
And one final thing to keep in mind, of course, when you file for access to your records: If you didn't have a file before, you do now.