An unfair association with terror

Last week Capt. Bill Chandler of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office singled out groups such as Students Against War and Arise! Bookstore as groups “to watch” during an “Understanding Terrorism in Minnesota” presentation. While careful not to label the groups as terrorist organizations, Chandler’s assertion during a terrorism presentation implies they are dangerous and flies in the face of due process. The broad statement only serves to fuel distrust between law enforcement and the citizens they are charged with protecting. It also dangerously blurs the line between legitimate law enforcement activity and political exploitation.

The boundaries of “terroristic activity” are perilously ambiguous. Increasingly, government agencies are using the war on terrorism to justify subversions of due process and to collect information on Americans and non-citizens who live here. For example, federal officials can now require libraries to release information concerning research activities. Under the Homeland Security Act, government agencies aspire to implement background checks, fingerprinting and storage inspections for model rocket enthusiasts. Attorney General John Ashcroft has already ordered the seizure of Web sites under the guise of drug enforcement. Such activities strip private citizens of layers of privacy, leaving them exposed in the public eye.

We’ve learned from history that such coordinated drives to collect private information invite the prospect of government abuse. President Nixon used Counter Intelligence Programs to compile an enemy list with thousands of names; the list contained people from journalists to comedian Bill Cosby. The list’s purpose was entirely ignoble. According to a Nixon presidential memo, “We can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.” In a similar vein, former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover compiled personal profiles of many Americans in order to blacklist and blackmail.

While Chandler’s comments don’t go as far, naming peaceful activist organizations as potential threats at a terrorism forum does create unwarranted suspicion. The government terrorism task force’s focus of fringe groups whose connection to terrorism is far from established is largely a waste of assets. To truly combat terrorism the government must refrain from unfair terrorist association and focus instead on actual terrorist groups.