Ashcroft FBI Guidelines: Out Hoovering-Hoover

Emile Schepers, Program Director, Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights

June 1 2002


Attorney General John Ashcroft has just issued new guidelines for FBI surveillance and investigations, which threaten to take us back to the days of J.Edgar Hoover. He has now given absolute power to FBI field office directors to investigate anybody and everybody at their own discretion. He has removed the concept of "probable cause" as a requirement for initiating surveillance of organizations and individuals, and he has authorized FBI surveillance of all public demonstrations and meetings. This is the "other shoe" that we were waiting to drop with regard to the rumored gutting of the "Levi Guidelines" created by the Ford Administration after the Church Committee hearings in the 1970s revealed the full horror of decades of FBI abuses under COINTELPRO, and long before.

Press accounts in the last couple of days have tended to misrepresent what, exactly, is the danger. They have often suggested that the main problem with the FBI before the Levi Guidelines, and therefore the danger from Ashcroft's new dispensation, was that people's privacy would be invaded. We have to remember that since the inception of the FBI's political activities in the wake of the 1919 Palmer Raids, a whole lot more was harmed than mere privacy.

Lest we forget, here are some of the issues that arose with the FBI under Hoover and especially under COINTELPRO. The now-historical Levi Guidelines were designed to prevent these things, though we would be naive if we thought that with the issuance of those guidelines, all such abuses stopped:

In his short tenure in office, Ashcroft has already shown a tendency to out-Hoover Hoover, to sweep away checks and balances developed to prevent government attacks on First Amendment and due process rights. The USA/PATRIOT Act, Ashcroft's creation, was rammed through Congress in October 2001 without any of the normal Congressional hearings or public discussion. Ashcroft and Bush let it be known that anyone who dared to oppose it would be seen as abetting terrorism. One of the most dangerous aspects of the USA/PATRIOT Act is its marginalization of judicial review over repressive actions by the government, a direct attack on the idea of checks and balances in the Constitution. The new guidelines are a serious step in the same direction, as the idea that people exercising First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, press, religion and assembly can not be investigated without probable cause, is utterly discarded. If Ashcroft and Bush are allowed to go on in this fashion, the end product is political repression worse than anything Hoover or McCarthy were able to inflict. In the 1950's, for example, immigrants accused of "subversive" affiliations were processed for deportation but, if their countries of origin would not take them back, were able to continue to live and work in the United States. Under the USA/PATRIOT Act, such immigrants can be permanently imprisoned without trial.

We have seen the wolf, now we have to act.