government spying on nonviolent protestors
Documents released on Friday 13 October 2006 by the American Civil Liberties Union show that the United States Department of Defense (DOD) has been keeping tabs on peaceful protestors, including Christians.
The revelation opens up a new discipleship question for congregations: “In serving the Prince of Peace, is your church doing anything worth spying on, or is it just being ineffectually religious?”
The DOD documents reveal that the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization committed to the principles of nonviolence, came under Pentagon surveillance on several occasions last year for organizing or supporting peaceful protest activity.
The Service Committee became lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union earlier this year to uncover exactly who the Pentagon is spying on and why. The requests were made under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed in the wake of reports that the Defense Department has been conducting secret surveillance of legal protest activities and individuals whose only reported "wrong-doing" was "attending a peace rally."
The FOIA documents obtained from the suit note DOD surveillance in February and March 2005, of email announcing peace demonstrations in two cities. Both activities were organized by or conducted in partnership with one of AFSC's regional offices.
"The Department of the Army has confirmed through our FOIA request that they had AFSC under surveillance in spite of our Quaker adherence to nonviolence and peaceful protest," states Michael McConnell, director of the AFSC Great Lakes Region, where documented instances of DOD spying occurred. "Besides being a waste of time and taxpayer money, this essentially amounts to a 'fishing expedition' that undermines rather than enhances national security. This disclosure of documents means that no one is safe from the arbitrary intrusive eye of government surveillance."
"If the government has avowed pacifists under surveillance, then no one is safe," states Greg Coleridge, an AFSC community organizer based in Akron, Ohio, where a sponsored protest at a military recruitment station and at the Federal Building was earmarked as "suspicious." According to the documents, the threat was later found to be "not credible."
The email that prompted DOD scrutiny announced a "Stop the War, Now" rally held to commemorate the second anniversary of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.
"We need to be clear," Coleridge states. "The Pentagon is snooping on individuals and groups that have no history of organizing or even calling for violence against the government. If people and groups like this can be monitored, then we need to ask 'where does it end?' "
With the constitutionality of warrantless wiretapping of ordinary Americans debated in court and bills supporting it before Congress - Frist in the Senate and the recently green-lighted Wilson bill in the House of Representatives -- the question gains added significance and reason for concern.
"The Bush administration maintains that the threat of terrorism mandates a change in government policy. However, we believe trampling the Bill of Rights and dismantling our Constitution will not erase the threat of terrorism," states Joyce Miller, assistant general secretary for justice and human rights. "Conversely, eroding constitutional safeguards and destroying the principles of democracy on which our country was founded make us less safe and less secure."
An "all are welcomed" email was enough to merit government spying at a series of protests at military recruitment offices in Springfield, Massachusetts, on the second anniversary of the Iraq War. The protests, held from 18-20 March 2006, were sponsored by United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of faith and secular peace organizations.
"What does it say about a government that is wasting both time and resources watching its own law-abiding citizens?" asks Keith Harvey, director of the AFSC New England regional office, cosponsor of the Springfield event. "Imagine what could happen if we give the government unrestrained authority to spy on anyone without answering to anyone?"
"Our country is governed by the rule of law, not the politics of hysteria and fear," Miller emphasized. "Spying on citizens for merely executing their constitutional rights of free speech and peaceful assembly is chilling and marks a troubling trend. Our country is built upon a system of checks and balances. These actions violate the rule of law and strike a severe blow against our Constitution."
In addition to the Service Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of Veterans for Peace, United for Peace and Justice and Greenpeace, as well as dozens of local groups in Florida, Georgia, Rhode Island, Maine, Pennsylvania and California.
With national headquarters in Philadelphia, the American Friends Service Committee is internationally recognized for its humanitarian work and long history fighting for human rights and against injustice. The Service Committee is a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of all Quakers for work to heal the wounds of war, especially efforts to feed starving children and help Europe rebuild during and after World Wars I and II.
The Service Committee was at the forefront of combating illegal FBI surveillance tactics in the 1970s. At that time, under the Freedom of Information Act, AFSC secured hundreds of federal files detailing illegal government surveillance projects and intelligence documents targeting US peace groups.
"No one should have the power to unilaterally, secretly, and indefinitely spy on or wiretap Americans without court oversight of individual warrants to safeguard our fundamental rights to privacy, liberty and due process of law," Miller concludes.
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