FBI expansion of power hits home

By Darryl Holliday

Federal investigations into U.S. residents’ private lives are on the rise, both nationally and in the city of Chicago because of suspected terrorist links that many say are unfounded, and in effect, constitute violations of privacy and First Amendment rights.

Two forms of federal subpoenas, national security letters and grand jury subpoenas are increasingly used by the FBI to obtain personal records and private documents of U.S. residents.

“This is a civil liberties issue,” said Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union. “We’ve all been subpoenaed.”

Since the federal raids on the homes of 14 local anti-war activists in Minnesota and Chicago last Sept. 24, nine more Midwest activists have been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury under suspicion of giving “material support” to “foreign terrorist organizations,” expanding the total number of subpoenas to 23.

As previously reported in The Chronicle last Oct. 4, the definition of “material support” stems from the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which was enhanced under the USA Patriot Act and is said by many to infringe on the civil liberties of U.S. citizens by vaguely defining what constitutes material support to an organization.

They now potentially face prison time as a result.

“My understanding of a grand jury is that it’s one of the most undemocratic institutions the government has and the government uses it to intimidate activists and get them to speak out about each other,” said Tom Burke, a Chicago labor activist and one of the first group of activists subpoenaed.

A protest was held on Jan. 25 in front of the Dirksen Federal Building, 219 S. Dearborn St., in which an estimated 250 people demanded that the FBI end unwarranted investigations.

“We fear the government may be seeking to use the recent Supreme Court decision Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project to attack activity protected by fundamental rights of freedom of association, speech and inquiry,” said Maureen Murphy, one of the nine newly subpoenaed activists. “We will not allow our solidarity to be construed as ‘material support for terrorism.’”

More than 250 organizations have endorsed a petition in support of those targeted by the FBI subpoenas.

Endorsements include the Chicago Teachers Union, several Service Employee International Union locals, Columbia College art activists, as well as the Palestine Solidarity Group-Chicago.

Though no charges against the activists have yet been filed by the FBI, the agency’s investigative persistence has raised questions of a broader ramping up of power that could be used to stifle political dissent.

FBI spokesman Randall Samborn declined to comment on any aspect of the pending subpoenas.

As the USA Patriot Act comes up for renewal in Congress in the coming months, public discussion is beginning to emerge despite a lack of news coverage.

On Jan. 5, Representative Mike Rogers, R-Mich., introduced a bill that would add another year to the 2001 legislation, which provides for the use of national security letters and greatly eased restrictions on law enforcement agencies’ ability to search and monitor the communications of U.S. residents in the wake of 9/11.

According to James Carafano, policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, the need for a Patriot Act renewal is clear.

“It’s a valuable tool for combating terrorists [and] it’s not a threat to our civil liberties,” Carafano said. “So any debate you see about the Patriot Act is really people playing politics with the issue.”

But 10 years after the act’s initial passing, the debate over its use continues.

“I think the rhetoric surrounding the Patriot Act didn’t match up to what the reality is,” said Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “We were told we needed to put up with all these expanded powers and intrusions because they were needed to investigate terrorism. The truth is this expansion of authority has really been about broader kinds of issues and often about people who don’t have any link to terrorism whatsoever.”

In recent years, the use of national security letters—a form of subpoena used by the FBI to demand information from individuals or organizations—has risen. This is despite a 2008 report from the U.S. Department of Justice, which concluded that the FBI had abused its investigative powers by issuing inadequately documented national security letters from 2003 to 2006.

National security letters require no warrant, probable cause or judicial oversight and contain a gag order that prevents the recipient from revealing to anyone that the letter was issued. The gag order was recently ruled unconstitutional and has been modified to allow recipients the right to speak to legal counsel regarding the letters.

Despite this ruling, national security letters remain a frequently used tool of the FBI. According to the ACLU, approximately 50,000 letters are issued every year and can demand information from individuals two or three times removed from the actual suspect.

“I think the concern is, put broadly, that these are essentially blank checks for law enforcement to gather information about individuals without any real link to any sort of criminal or illicit activity, which is really at the heart of what national security letters are supposed to be about,” Yohnka said. “One of the things we hope for is there will be some attention given to this issue and [that] we’ll see more oversight.”