Homeland Security report shows need to save civil liberties for all

Government officials seek to control whatever it is they don’t understand.

In my experience, they don’t understand much, so they try to regulate, tax, monitor and control everything. And now we learn that the Obama administration, clueless about the nature of conservative activism in this country, wants to monitor it very carefully.

According to a Department of Homeland Security report released in April, Americans who are active in fighting abortion, same-sex marriage, illegal immigration and gun control, and who prefer state or local authority to federal authority, are potential right-wing extremists who demand closer attention from law enforcement.

“The possible passage of new restrictions on firearms and the return of military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone-wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks,” the federal report stated. Although it admits that there are no particular incidents of such extremism, the agency warns that the bad economy and the election of the first black president have created a “fertile recruiting environment for right-wing extremists.”

The administration backed away from such hysteria in reaction to the backlash over the report, but the report gives insight into the thinking at the highest levels of government. Such government overreach has consequences. I got to know one family that collected military surplus items on its property in the high desert. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, heightened concern about militias gave the authorities the pretext to use eminent domain to take their land. It’s a long and convoluted story, but these folks had to spend years fighting to save their home and family after the authorities got an unsubstantiated and wrong notion about them.

My point: When powerful agencies get paranoid, individual Americans suffer losses of life and liberty.

At this point, right-wingers are no doubt applauding my words. But I wonder where they were during the Bush administration, as it used the terrorism threat to expand federal powers and undermine civil liberties. Actually, I don’t wonder where they were. They were right there, cheering and defending the administration, just as the left-wingers are reliably defending the Obama administration as it seeks to depict decent people as threats to society.

Regarding Obama’s outrageous report, conservative columnist Michele Malkin wrote: “(T)he piece of crap report issued on April 7 is a sweeping indictment of conservatives. And the intent is clear … In Obama land, there are no coincidences. It is no coincidence that this report echoes Tea Party-bashing left-wing blogs … and demonizes the very Americans” who protested last month during the nationwide Tax Day Tea Party.

She’s right, but Malkin is known in part for her book defending the U.S. government’s internment of innocent Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans during World War II, and she has been quite vocal in her defense of federal policies targeting Muslim-Americans.

In Orange County, Calif., the FBI used a convicted con artist as an informant who inserted himself into local mosques and recorded conversations with mosque-goers about potentially blowing up buildings.

Although the agency wouldn’t confirm the man’s identity, it did acknowledge that he was recording people within mosques. A man named Craig Monteilh says he was the informant, and he says he went by the name Farouk al-Aziz. As the Orange County Register reported, Monteilh is accused of going from one young Muslim to another, trying to engage them in radical talk. Some mosque-goers contacted the FBI to report on this seeming radical in their midst, but according to the local Council of American-Islamic Relations, these men who made complaints then became the subject of FBI scrutiny.

It’s one thing for the FBI to infiltrate a mosque after getting a solid tip that someone there is involved in terrorist activities, and quite another for the agency to go on a fishing expedition. A Register editorial made this point: “Everyone understands the need for legitimate undercover activities in response to credible evidence. But we cannot fathom the justification for fishing expeditions and entrapment. Nationwide, some of the supposed terrorist ‘plots’ the FBI has claimed to have foiled have simply been cases of entrapment involving Muslims without the intent or wherewithal to pull off any attacks.”

Even if the FBI’s claims are right that it doesn’t bait people into violent discussions, this infiltration business poses enormous privacy problems. A person goes to worship at his mosque and has to worry that the people he talks to are actually recording conversations on behalf of powerful federal law enforcement agencies. No wonder many local Muslims avoided attendance there. Others have correctly argued that it would be a mistake for Muslims to cooperate with an FBI that assumes they are terrorists and secretly records their conversations. This strikes me as an authoritarian and counterproductive policy. Yet after the Register editorial, I received e-mails from conservatives blasting us for undermining the government’s “war on terror” and siding with an organization (CAIR) these conservatives don’t like.

So now let’s turn things around. Let’s say conservatives find that the Obama FBI is taping them at their churches and infiltrating pro-life, gun-rights and anti-illegal-immigration groups. We know the feds now believe that members of these groups are likely to be right-wing extremists, so the next step to “protect” the homeland from Oklahoma City-style violence is to do to these conservatives what the FBI has been doing to Muslims. Obviously, such a thing would be an outrage.

How would a conservative feel if his Bible-study friend, who once tried to goad him into violent talk about the end times, was actually a plant from the FBI? How would any of us feel if the FBI were scrutinizing sermons, recording speakers at political events and casting a wide net to “take down” the local gun club or pro-life group? Not too good, right?

Not surprisingly, the Muslim groups haven’t uttered a peep about the “right-wing extremism” report, and liberal groups were busy defending the Obama administration and cheering its assault on legitimate conservative activism. No one complains when it’s the other guy’s ox being gored.

Isn’t it time Americans defend everyone’s civil liberties, not just the liberties of those on our side of the political spectrum? Can’t we all realize that an excessively large and powerful federal government is a threat to everyone’s liberties? Can’t we unite at least in keeping a check on all federal law enforcement abuses, whether by Republican or Democratic administrations? Isn’t it time for a broader alliance to protect civil liberties rather than the same tired partisanship?

Of course, my cynicism toward the feds and distrust of government authority no doubt makes me an extremist in the Obama administration’s worldview.

Maybe I better watch whom I talk to.

By Steven Greenhut
The Orange County Register