by Nat Hentoff
The Progressive magazine, February 2002
It was only a one-day story in the relatively few newspapers
that carried it, and there was scant mention on television or
radio, but the Attorney General has revived the FBI's Cointelpro
(Counterintelligence Program)-the most disgraced operation in
the Bureau's scrofulous history.
Relying on the polls abundantly supporting his and the President's
war on the Bill of Rights-and on the short historical memories
of the public and the news media-John Ashcroft brushes off any
concerns about a modern-day version of Cointelpro or the FBI's
secret searches (black bag jobs) in the USA Patriot Act by saying
he will do anything necessary within the bounds of the Constitution,
as he interprets it, to protect us from the hidden enemy.
From 1957 to 1971, the FBI, under Cointelpro, surveilled,
infiltrated, and disrupted religious and political organizations
during the civil rights, anti-war, and human rights campaigns.
Agents even "worshipped" covertly in churches deemed
Finally, Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho, and his
Select Senate Committee on Intelligence Activities, after investigating
Cointelpro's pervasive contempt for constitutional rights, concluded
that "the American people need to be reassured that never
again will an agency of the government be permitted to conduct
a secret war against those citizens it considers threats to the
We have been deceived again.
In Atlanta recently, at a meeting of black leaders to discuss
the unfinished civil rights agenda, Jesse Jackson said of the
Ashcroft-Bush agenda, "Our civil rights and civil liberties
have now been seized. When Ashcroft and the CIA and the FBI and
Homeland Security and the IRS can work together, look out, Cointelpro.
Look out, Red Squad."
Later, there was another meeting of civil rights leaders in
Washington convened by Laura Murphy, head of the ACLU's Washington
office. (Ever since Ashcroft came into reckless power, the ACLU
has been invaluable. Under its new executive director, Anthony
Romero, the ACLU has been proactive as well as reactive. It was
Romero's idea to send letters to the consulates of the ten countries
with the largest number of their citizens "detained"-i.e.,
imprisoned- by Ashcroft and to offer legal assistance.) At that
Washington meeting, some participants-including the syndicated
radio talk show host and former NAACP board member Joe Madison-insisted
that civil rights organizations have not been publicly critical
enough of the Government's shredding of the Constitution. Al Sharpton
said some of his colleagues seemed to be suffering from laryngitis.
That is now changing.
The silence or acquiescence of many Jewish organizations has
also been disappointing. "The White House strategy for fighting
terrorism is driving a wedge between leading Jewish champions
of civil liberties and many of the Jewish organizations that have
been their traditional allies," wrote Ami Eden in the Jewish
One example is the Anti-Defamation League. I've known its
director, Abe Foxman, for many years, but he does not return my
call on this matter. However, he told The New York Times that
he commends Ashcroft and Bush. "We have been out there very
clearly and very directly supportive of this new legislation,
and giving law enforcement power to be able to prevent criminal
acts," Foxman said.
It was the FBI under Cointelpro that jubilantly committed
criminal acts. And as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals told
Ashcroft on December 19, his act of holding thousands of immigrants
facing deportation in "detention" indefinitely without
hearings is unconstitutional. That ruling affects long-term detainees
and is not based on Ashcroft's post-September 11 mass jailing
of immigrants on unproved links to terrorism, but it sets a precedent
for future legal challenges by the ACLU and other civil liberties
While the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress,
the American Jewish Committee, and other Jewish organizations
fear antagonizing Bush and Ashcroft, the leaders of Reform Judaism
have spoken out strongly. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of
the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Eric
Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations,
sent a letter to Ashcroft decrying his attack on the Sixth Amendment
right to counsel. They told Ashcroft that his directive allowing
federal law enforcement officials to eavesdrop on conversations
between "detained" individuals and their lawyers weakens
"the basic right to competent legal counsel altogether."
Now, say the rabbis, the detainees' lawyers "must constantly
fear undermining their cases by merely speaking with individuals
they are sworn to represent."
And as for the secret affidavit exposed by The Washington
Post that orders "detainees" to be held on often-minor
violations without any connection to September 11, the rabbis
are clear: "This legal document turns the traditional presumptions
of our criminal justice system on their head, essentially arguing
that judges should deny bail to individuals based not on the evidence
before them but rather on the lack of evidence-on the promise
of a prosecutor that the individual in question fits into a 'mosaic.'
That legal argument makes it nearly impossible for a defense attorney
to prevent her client from being detained." (Emphasis added.)
As of this writing, there has been no answer from Ashcroft,
a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, who should
sue to get his tuition back.
Nat Hentoff is a columnist for the Village Voice, NEA Newspapers
Syndicate, Legal Times, and Editor and Publisher. His most recent
hooks are "Living the Bill of Rights" (University of
California, 1999) and "The Nat Hentoff Reader" (Da Capo