The past is staring Imad Hamad in the face, and it is terrifying.
In 1976, as America was celebrating its bicentennial, a select committee led by Idaho Sen. Frank Church concluded its investigation into domestic “intelligence gathering” in the United States throughout much of the 20th century.
“Americans have rightfully been concerned since before World War II about the dangers of hostile foreign agents likely to commit acts of espionage,” noted the report. “Similarly, the violent acts of political terrorists can seriously endanger the rights of Americans. Carefully focused intelligence investigations can help prevent such acts. But too often intelligence has lost this focus and domestic intelligence activities have invaded individual privacy and violated the rights of lawful political expression.”
The report’s authors reached this chilling conclusion:
“Unless new and tighter controls are established by legislation, domestic intelligence activities threaten to undermine our democratic society and fundamentally alter its nature.”
One month ago, Attorney General John Ashcroft rolled back the clock, abolishing some of the policies implemented to protect against the kinds of abuses detailed in the Church report. Most Americans, if they paid any attention at all, simply shrugged.
But Hamad can’t just turn away. As Midwest director of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee in Ann Arbor, he represents a community that’s been caught in the glaring searchlight of federal law enforcement from the moment Middle Eastern terrorists hijacked four planes last September to attack America.
Coming on the heels of the sweeping USA Patriot Act passed by Congress late last year, Ashcroft, with the blessing of President Bush, announced May 29 that he was further loosening the reins on agents in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For the first time in more than 25 years, agents have been given a green light to keep tabs on public gatherings — including those held at mosques and other places of worship — without first having any evidence the activity is connected to a crime.
Coupled with the USA Patriot Act’s curtailing of oversight regarding issuance of search warrants and wiretaps, along with other efforts to ease restrictions on the monitoring of electronic communications and the mining of commercially available databases, these changes have civil libertarians sounding the constitutional alarm. It’s not only lefties raising concern about the dismantling of protections instituted during the Ford administration.
“There was a reason why President Ford put in the rules he did,” Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, told The Hill newspaper after calling for hearings on the May 29 actions. “It was because of an abuse of power. We want to make sure we don’t have a return to that.”
The FBI wasn’t alone in committing abuses. The Detroit Police Department and Michigan State Police used so-called Red Squads to collect the names of more than 1,000,000 people, the vast majority of whom did nothing more than protest government policies or legally advocate for social change. Dick Soble, an Ann Arbor attorney who fought a protracted, successful legal battle during the 1970s and ’80s to allow the subjects of those files access to them, says the widespread surveillance by local, state and federal law enforcement was anything but benign.
“If you knew the FBI could legally come to a meeting, that the person sitting next to you could be a government agent, how willing would you be to speak out?” asks Soble. “If people know that their words are being recorded in a dossier, a lot of them won’t show up. There is a chilling effect. Even though the government is just gathering information, you don’t know what they will do with it.”
In the case of Red Squad files, the information collected often found its way into the hands of landlords or employers. Or agents would come knocking on the doors of friends and neighbors, asking questions that cast a pall of suspicion.
“People can start thinking differently about you when that happens, even if you’ve done nothing at all illegal,” says Soble.
Other tactics by the FBI were even more egregious. During the days of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO counterintelligence program, which began with the Red scare of communism during the 1950s and stretched through the Vietnam era, the agency used agents provocateurs and dirty tricks to disrupt political movements. That’s long past, we’re told. So is the spying on the personal lives of leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in an attempt to discredit them
“Was that wrong? Yes, it was,” says Greg Suhajda, special agent in the Detroit office of the FBI. “But that was a different era. And those things occurred many years ago. The climate is different now, and the focus is different. I can’t believe anybody would disagree with our objective to prevent future terrorist attacks.”
Suhajda says he respects the position of those raising concerns about civil liberties. “I understand that side of it,” he explains. “But in the ongoing pursuit to prevent future terrorist attacks, sometimes an FBI agent may have to sift through information that is not necessarily deemed criminal, or to attend events that aren’t deemed criminal, especially early on in an investigation, when the answers are not yet clear. We still must articulate why we are doing things. The changes were made to help us thwart terrorism. That is our goal.
“Our goal is not to violate anybody’s civil rights. Will that happen? We sincerely hope not. People need to look at the positives that will come from these changes, not the negatives. It is not our objective to ever violate anybody’s civil liberties. We’re in this fight together.”
Critics counter that to not keep an eye on those negatives is to virtually guarantee they will recur.
“It’s always very tempting, at the beginning of an era of crisis, to want to view government action in a benign way,” observes Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. “We don’t want to believe that history will repeat itself. But when you look at history, the same mistakes are often made over and over again. Power is given over to the government in the hope that the crisis will be lessened, and then that power is abused. Lawful activity, political dissent, the right to associate with groups becomes the target. We saw it during the 1920s, during the McCarthy era of the ’50s, during the anti-war era of the ’60s.”
Few parts of the country have seen more of the types of abuse Moss refers to than Detroit. With its tradition of fostering progressive movements, from organized labor to civil rights, activists here have long known what it is like to push for social change with government forces actively opposing them.
Agent Suhajda contends that times are different now. The threat isn’t from union agitators or anti-war protesters, but rather terrorists willing to unleash anthrax and radioactive “dirty” bombs. But, just as now, there were always legitimate reasons for law enforcement to be active. Radicals planted bombs in the early days of the labor movement. Extremists opposed to the Vietnam War kidnapped and robbed banks and set off bombs of their own. And society as a whole expected protection from those dangerous elements. But even in such times — or more pointedly, especially in such times — the Constitution is supposed to protect those exercising the right to oppose their government with protest and political action, and the government has repeatedly acted to deny them that right.
During crises, walking that fine line between protecting public safety while protecting the public’s rights is exceedingly difficult.
Polls show that the vast majority of the public approves of the government’s response to Sept. 11. But a minority — especially those being caught up in the investigation’s web — say there is cause for concern.
“What is happening now brings a chilling feeling,” says Hamad. “But because the focus now is on Arab-Americans, the rest of the public is willing to justify it because of the tense situation we are going through as a result of the horrible crime committed against our nation on Sept. 11. What people need to realize is that what’s being taken away is our basic civil liberties as Americans. It’s not only the Arab-American community. It just depends on who is in the hot seat.”
To understand what it’s like to be in that seat, Metro Times interviewed area activists who have felt the hot glare of a government bearing down on them. All have had dossiers compiled by the FBI, as well as the infamous Red Squads of the Detroit Police Department and the Michigan State Police.
At times their stories appear so outrageous they strain credulity, sounding more like the product of paranoia than fact. What they describe, though, is well-documented. The Church Committee Report offers an analysis that lends heft to the concerns raised by critics of the Bush administration’s policies.
“There is always a possibility,” it warns, “that a secret police may become a menace to free government because it carries with it the possibility of abuses of power which are not always quickly apprehended or understood.
“Our investigation has confirmed that warning. We have seen segments of our government, in their attitudes and action, adopt tactics unworthy of a democracy, and occasionally reminiscent of the tactics of totalitarian regimes. We have seen a consistent pattern in which programs initiated with limited goals, such as preventing criminal violence or identifying foreign spies, were expanded to what witnesses characterized as ‘vacuum cleaners,’ sweeping in information about lawful activities of American citizens.”
All of the activists interviewed agreed with the Church report’s conclusion that granting overarching powers to police agencies is inherently dangerous because those powers are almost impossible to contain.
“The tendency of intelligence activities to expand beyond their initial scope is a theme which runs through every aspect of our investigative findings.”
At 88 years old, Saul Wellman has lived long enough to have seen history repeat itself several times over. He was still a boy when, two decades into the 20th century, the government set its sights on the burgeoning labor movement and its socialist underpinnings. The son of Jewish immigrants, he was just a kid during the Palmer raids of 1920, when government agents moved with one fell swoop to round up thousands of so-called agitators — including scores in Detroit — to be jailed and then deported.
The spirit of those times was captured by Agnes Inglis, a pro-labor activist in Detroit. Her papers, housed now in the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, contain this observation of that era’s Red scare and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s infamous list: “Every one with a tendency to express an opinion asked himself, ‘Is my name written there?’ If one spoke, one wondered if a spy from the Department of Justice were around to take the word to the secret chamber. ... One awoke to the fact that the spy system existed as a real thing in America.”
It was within that milieu that Wellman developed a “relatively high level” of political consciousness. “I suckled the ideas of socialism at my mother’s breast,” is the way he put it.
At the age of 16 or 17 he was arrested for the first time while attending a demonstration of 100,000 workers at Union Square in New York City. His activism earned him expulsion from high school. Six years later, in 1936, he went to Spain to fight fascists as a member of the Lincoln Brigade, attaining the rank of major. After the Spanish Civil War, he continued to fight fascism, enlisting in the Army to battle Nazis as a paratrooper.
Following World War II, he returned to America, working as a truck driver, raising a family, and rising in the ranks of the Communist Party. A self-described “union militant,” he was jailed for a year during the 1950s for violating the Smith Act, which made it a crime to teach or advocate the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Ten years later, the Smith Act was ruled unconstitutional, and Wellman’s full rights as an American citizen were restored. “I have always felt that I was performing in the best interest of my country,” he says.
Testimony to that can be found on the walls of the Ann Arbor nursing home where he now lives, with framed proclamations from the City of Detroit and State of Michigan honoring the achievements of a man once considered an enemy of his country.
“I have a healthy respect for the FBI,” he says, smiling. Then he’s asked to assess the current situation and his smile disappears. “I’ve been through this so many fucking times before, I know exactly how they operate.”
The wholesale roundup of Arab immigrants on minor visa violations following Sept. 11 is like seeing the ghost of Palmer return to life.
“Terrorism, as a political tactic, I think it’s a loser,” he says. But so is the reaction of the Bush administration. “Bush’s response is to go after these people in total secrecy. But the more you do that, the less effective it is. The more you violate fundamental American principles, the more you will lose.”
If nothing else, the agents keeping track of Ron Glotta during the 1960s and ’70s were exposed to some interesting literature.
Judging from the files he obtained from the FBI and the state and local Red Squads, “they spent a lot of time looking into our book club.” It wasn’t Oprah’s reading list.
“We had a group of about 300 people, blacks and whites who would meet and discuss issues raised by various books. Books about control, conflict, change, a lot of stuff like that.”
Since his days as a student at the University of Michigan Law School in the mid-’60s, Glotta, now 61, has been active in a litany of progressive causes: civil rights, union activity in the auto industry, and, later on, the anti-war movement.
The closest he ever came to being connected to a crime was when attempts were made to nab him on charges of weapon smuggling. “I had a shotgun in my car,” says Glotta, an avid hunter. “The cops stopped me for that, but they couldn’t do anything to me.”
But the absence of criminal activity didn’t stop the government from keeping him under surveillance. “The files that they turned over to me were so redacted it was hard to tell what was in them. What you could read was totally mundane stuff. There was a lot in there about the book club. They were looking at us simply because of what we were saying.”
“One of the things in my file,” he recalls, “is a report saying ‘Glotta seen taking Negroes to Detroit.’” He chuckles at how ridiculous that seems, then says, “I laugh about it now, but it’s really not funny.”
Especially when placed in context with current events. “I think what we’re seeing passed now are extremely reactionary laws,” says Glotta.
Particularly insidious, he says, was the practice of having agents or their snitches infiltrate organizations. If ignored, they would cause havoc. If you tried to ferret them out, paranoia and mistrust could paralyze a group.
A primary difference between current and previous police actions is the ability to keep government in check.
“In the past, we had a strong progressive movement that helped us stand up to what was going on. We don’t have that kind of movement now, which means that things are going to be much worse this time around.”
The way Ron Scott sees it, democracy is under assault. He’s seen it before.
As a member of the Black Panther Party in Detroit during the 1960s, Scott says his efforts were directed toward “trying to rid our community of drugs, building the consciousness of young people, promoting self-defense, creating a free breakfast program for children. Why did the government come after us? Because we were organized. We were a political movement.”
What Scott never was, he says, was a criminal. What he feels like now, however, is a combat veteran still dealing with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Many of his comrades met violent ends, either at the hands of police or — because of the strife he says was sown by government infiltrators — at the hands of each other.
“The harassment,” he says, “was constant. It was sanctioned state terror. Their agents infiltrated us and promoted suspicion, anger, hostility.”
The Panthers were certainly militant. The Church report leaves open the question of how dangerous the group was, but is unequivocal in its evaluation of FBI tactics: “We have been able to establish beyond doubt that high officials of the FBI desired to promote violent confrontations between BPP (Black Panther Party) members and members of other groups, and that those officials condoned tactics calculated to achieve that end. It is deplorable that officials of the United States Government, should engage in the activities … however dangerous a threat they might have considered the Panthers; equally disturbing is the pride which those officials took in claiming credit for the bloodshed that occurred.”
As for our current situation, Scott makes this observation: “People have a realistic fear about their lives being lost to terrorist activity. They hope the government will protect them. And if the government has to get a little nasty to accomplish that, they just hope that won’t spill over to them.”
These days Scott is a staff person for Groundwork for a Just World, a faith-based human-rights and social-justice organization at Wayne State University’s Newman Center. He produces and hosts a local cable television program called “For My People,” and is active in the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality.
About his continued activism, Scott says: “What’s my option? To give up and run away? How could I do that to my friends who are still locked up and are unable to run away?”
Freedom of the press? Not necessarily. “We were involved in what was assumed to be a constitutionally protected activity, which was putting out a newspaper,” says Peter Werbe, longtime staff member of the Fifth Estate underground newspaper. “But our offices were broken into during the ’60s, and our subscription lists were stolen,” recalls Werbe. “Police kept us under surveillance. One particular person that I know of was blackmailed by police under threat of prosecution on morals charges to inform on us.
“One of the things we found in the FBI files was that the Fifth Estate, which is now in it its 37th year, ‘supported the cause of revolution everywhere,’” a charge, says Werbe, that they’ve never denied.
The agents didn’t only rely on the stealth of informants, however.
“They wanted to let us know that they were there,” says Werbe. “On one level, it was like they were frat boys pulling pranks. But on another level, it was an attempt to intimidate us, to create a kind of repression.”
Looking at the current situation, and Ashcroft’s decision to roll back reforms, Werbe is both dismayed and struck by how unnecessary the changes are.
“At this point, there isn’t even a coherent movement of opposition,” says Werbe, who hosts programs on several radio stations. “It’s almost like they’re doing pre-emptive damage control to prevent that movement from forming. It’s still a way of intimidation.”
“The other thing is what we’re seeing in the reports that come out almost every day. They didn’t need expanded powers to prevent what happened Sept. 11. All that needed to be done, as they say, is connect the dots.”
When Robert F. Williams’ book Negroes With Guns was published in 1962, chronicling the efforts of blacks in a small North Carolina community to arm themselves against the Ku Klux Klan, Detroit resident General Baker was already a believer in the notion that African-Americans needed to exercise their Second Amendment rights. That, and his desire to bring Marxist principles to Detroit’s autoworkers, earned him the attention of just about every government agency capable of disrupting his life.
The father of five daughters has been working as a furnace operator at the Ford Rouge plant for 22 years. He lives in a comfortable home in Highland Park, where the mantel of his fireplace is lined with Father’s Day cards, and a few of his surveillance files are kept close at hand. There are FBI, Detroit Police, Michigan State Police, and the Internal Revenue Service dossiers. “The IRS came after me because I didn’t file tax returns for several years,” he laughs. “I was paying my withholding tax. I just didn’t file any returns. When they began auditing me, they figured out that they owed me money.”
In 1964, he journeyed to Cuba, in violation of a U.S. ban on travel to that country. He recalls playing baseball with Fidel Castro and meeting with Che Guevara. And when he returned, he was hauled before a grand jury in New York City, where “they tried to tie us into a conspiracy to blow up the Statue of Liberty.”
Was there any credence to the charges?
“That was as far from my mind as possible,” he says. “but it made me realize there was a reign of terror against the black movement.”
What angered him more than anything, he says, is when the jury foreman began asking questions about his sister, a schoolteacher, and whether she liked her job.
“That was their tactic,” he says. “If they couldn’t get you to break, they’d let you know they’d go after your family. They were like the mob. That was the final straw. That just radicalized the hell out of me.”
As he agitated for civil rights for black autoworkers, the surveillance was constant.
“Sometimes I’d come out in the morning, and the agents would be sitting there in their car, and I’d walk up and tap on the window and say, ‘Look, since we’re all going to the same place, why don’t I just get in and ride with you,’” he recalls as the memory again brings a grin.
In his police files, there are reports of him being at a meeting discussing plans to blow up a Detroit police station, and attack tanks in the city with Molotov cocktails. “Those conversations never took place,” he insists. “That’s a fabrication. I was trying to organize people, not blow shit up.”
Nonetheless, that file was eventually leaked to supervisors at an auto plant where he worked in an attempt to get him fired.
During the ’60s, Baker was pulled over by police who found two rifles and a pistol in his car. He was sentenced to five years probation.
What he was mostly guilty of, though, “was basically being a fighter for civil rights.”
As to the current investigations of Arab-Americans and the Bush administration’s approach to the war on terrorism, he says, “People think they are protecting democracy, but they are really destroying it.”Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org