By Colbert I. King
June 15, 2002; Page A23
Would an Al Gore administration:
Round up and keep secret the names of hundreds of foreign-born individuals?
Place an American under indefinite detention without charges or an attorney?
Issue new FBI guidelines that open the possibility of a return to past domestic intelligence abuses?
Of course, we'll never know, since it was George W. Bush, not Al Gore, who was president of the United States when terrorists struck America last September.
Another question: If, as I'm hearing around town, the delicate balance between the government's investigative powers and civil liberties is shifting rightward, is it the sole result of conservatives' controlling the White House and Justice Department? Or are we witnessing another Washington power dynamic -- the overreach of government when the nation is feared under attack?
A stipulation: This is indeed a very conservative administration. And, yes, there are aspects of Attorney General John Ashcroft's new FBI investigative guidelines that call to mind the J. Edgar Hoover era, when federal agents engaged in appalling abuses of power in the name of national security.
But there is unequivocal evidence that the egotistical, tyrannical Hoover was also given a green light to go over the edge by government officials higher than Hoover's pay grade -- and much further to Hoover's left.
For instance, it was Attorney General Ramsey Clark, following the 1960s riots in Newark and Detroit, and under pressure from the Lyndon Johnson White House, who established a Justice Department unit to collect "civil disorder intelligence." Oh, yes, this is the same Ramsey Clark described today as left-wing, radical, controversial civil rights lawyer etc.
Clark's Justice Department -- aided by the FBI, the Army and a host of federal agencies -- put together a massive domestic intelligence apparatus that collected information on anything that appeared on the scene with the heading "black power, new left, pacifist, pro-Red Chinese, anti-Vietnam war, pro-Castro," according to the Church special committee report.
The Ramsey Clark-built vacuum cleaner sucked up and spit out files on Cesar Chavez, Sammy Davis, Jr., Coretta Scott King, Charles Evers, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the Urban League and VISTA among others.
Clark set no limits on FBI collection and reporting. In fact, he thought the bureau was taking too narrow an approach, by focusing on "traditional subversive groups." So Clark issued a directive that, in his view, set forth "a relatively new area of investigation and intelligence reporting for the FBI" of domestic groups and individuals.
The FBI's "ghetto informant program," which recruited thousands of inner-city residents and workers to spy for the FBI, was launched in response to Clark's demand for civil-disorder intelligence.
Ramsey Clark wasn't alone.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy signed off on FBI requests for approval of wiretaps on Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Kennedy also received the "fruits" of the taps on King. And Kennedy, whose name now graces the Justice Department building, gave written ex post facto approval to wiretaps that had been installed on the residence of New York Times reporter Hanson Baldwin and his secretary, again according to the Church report.
Lyndon Johnson himself, believing some foreign force was behind anti-war protests, encouraged the CIA to probe the peace movement.
Before you knew it, under a perceived mandate to "neutralize" subversive forces, the FBI was anonymously mailing letters to the spouses of domestic intelligence targets to destroy their marriages; falsely and anonymously branding members of violent groups as government informants to expose them to attacks or expulsion, and anonymously attacking the political beliefs of investigative targets to get them fired by their employers.
My point is this: In their day, good Democrats Kennedy, Johnson, Clark et al. believed the country faced serious domestic threats: civil disorder, subversive forces and revolutionary beliefs, black nationalism, communist infiltration.
Kennedy, Clark and Johnson weren't driven by their Democratic Party registration or by some perverse desire to infringe upon civil liberties. They justified and rationalized their actions -- intrusive, abusive and injurious to constitutional values -- as in the nation's interest: They were keeping us secure.
The September attacks and the threat of al Qaeda-sponsored terrorism are similarly driving the current Washington crowd. As with Democrats of decades ago, detecting the violent and foiling threats to the social order are, in the minds of this administration, their highest calling.
Fair enough. That's their job.
The issue, at least for me as a journalist in this time of crisis, is how do so-called watchdogs of democracy -- the press, some would add the courts and Congress -- guard against the excesses of government power. Party label, as we should have learned in the '60s and '70s, is irrelevant.
When the likely outcome is overbroad intelligence activity, more government control, departures from due process and less individual liberty, power shouldn't be easily ceded to any administration, whether it's Democratic or Republican, conservative or liberal or something in between.
What would Al Gore do?
Sorry, but at this critical moment, who cares?
© 2002 The Washington Post Company