Was Big Brother Watching?
Ever since September 11, civil liberties groups have expressed fear that law enforcement agencies would use the fight against terror groups as an excuse to monitor the activities of non-violent campus groups that oppose administration policies. And ever since 9/11, Bush administration officials have said that the civil liberties groups have nothing to fear and that law enforcement is focused on real terror threats.
Documents released by the Michigan branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, however, suggest that some campus groups that have never engaged in terrorist activities have been monitored as if they were terror threats.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU obtained a Federal Bureau of Investigation report on a 2002 meeting involving the FBI, the Michigan State police and other law enforcement agencies to discuss groups in Michigan "thought to be involved in terrorist activities."
Among the groups monitored was By Any Means Necessary, a University of Michigan group (also active elsewhere) devoted to defending affirmative action. The group has been active throughout the long legal debate over whether the university's approach to affirmative action was constitutional, and in the two years since the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action, the group has continued to go strong. It is currently fighting a referendum to ban affirmative action in the state of Michigan.
In the FBI document, a detective whose identity was redacted reported on rallies organized by By Any Means Necessary. The report also noted that past activities by the group "have been peaceful," and did not explain why the group was included in a report about groups that could be terrorist organizations. Another group in the report, the Direct Action Group, has many student members opposed to U.S. foreign policy.
The ACLU, in releasing the information, condemned law enforcement groups for monitoring the activities of legal campus groups.
"Labeling political advocacy as ‘terrorist activity’ is a threat to legitimate dissent which has never been considered a crime in this country," said Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan ACLU. She added that "spying on people who simply disagree with our government’s policies is a tremendous waste of police resources."
By Any Means Necessary has never been accused of being a terrorist group. Its name comes from Malcolm X, and while it has organized many protests, it has never been charged with violence of any sort and its Web site mentions very traditional, legal ways of achieving its goals (through the courts and elections, for example).
The group released a statement denouncing law enforcement groups for watching their activities. "The American people do not want their government spying on its own citizens," the statement said. "The outrageous offense to basic civil liberties in spying on BAMN is highlighted by the fact that the FBI report itself admits that BAMN has no history of violence. We have held hundreds of peaceful demonstrations and organized intensive litigation aimed at the defense of affirmative action and civil rights generally."
The Michigan State Police released a statement of its own, defending the monitoring of the activists groups as necessary to assure that protests that they were planning were conducted peacefully. The police statement said that there was no "spying," but rather information was gathered from public sources.