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Issue Date:  November 2, 2007

Big Brother is watching you, especially if you dissent

You can forgive Tim Vining if he doesn’t feel that his society is making great progress on civil liberties during wartime. Last year he learned he had been the target of FBI surveillance during protests to the buildup to the invasion of Iraq.

Vining was director of the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh when the FBI tracked his organization’s public movements in 2002. According to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, the bureau concluded that Merton Center “is a left-wing organization advocating, among many political causes, pacifism.”

“The fact that my own government would be suspicious of actions that we felt, for lack of a better term, were patriotic,” Vining said, “that really disappointed me.”

Vining theorizes that an award the Merton Center received at a mosque, which was publicized in the newspaper, might have sparked the investigation.

“We received the award for reaching out to the Muslim community after 9/11,” Vining said. “Here we feel that we are supporting the effort to create a more secure society and they repay the favor by spying on us.”

The Office of Inspector General in the Department of Justice has filed several reports to Congress saying it is investigating surveillance “of certain domestic advocacy groups, including the Thomas Merton Center, Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.”

The ACLU filed requests for documents from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act, hoping to find whether dissenters were being investigated. Several peace activists have since found that federal agents were, in fact, tracking them.

Val Phillips, who was coordinator of American Friends Service Committee Colorado when they found Denver police were tracking members of their group, said there is an effective freeze that such investigations put on would-be dissenters.

“I feel like we’ve created a climate where it’s a little more acceptable to spy on dissenters,” Phillips said. “So when a person is trying to consider whether they want to be part of a movement, this reality can be a deterrent.”

But Phillips is also quick to point out that the Denver file went back nearly 50 years, and there’s no evidence that 9/11 created more fervor on the police department’s part. Her group eventually negotiated oversight of police who could become too zealous in spying on dissenters.

Since the groups were tracked in public spaces, the surveillance was constitutional. Vining said that if it was supposed to scare them from dissenting, the plan didn’t work.

“I think it only encouraged us,” Vining said. “To me, in some strange way, it was an honor. Here I thought the administration wasn’t listening to us and they were very much paying attention, just not in the way we wanted.”

-- Michael Humphrey

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2007

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