New FBI guidelines that give the agency greater leeway in monitoring Americans’ everyday lives have Jewish groups debating how far personal freedoms can be pushed in the war on terrorism.
The FBI announced new surveillance guidelines last week that the Bush administration says will help prevent terrorism. The Jewish community generally is understanding of the need to change law enforcement and intelligence gathering methods following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, but is concerned over how civil liberties will be protected.
The guidelines will allow the FBI greater flexibility to monitor Internet sites, libraries, houses of worship and political organizations, and will lower the evidentiary threshold needed to initiate investigations.
In recent years, the Anti-Defamation League has called for giving law enforcement additional tools. The ADL and most other Jewish groups gave strong support to anti-terrorism laws in 1996 and last year’s USA Patriot Act, which gave new powers to domestic law enforcement and international intelligence agencies after Sept. 11.
“The movement from simply enforcing the law to preventing terrorism is necessary,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the ADL.
For some people, however, talk of increased domestic surveillance conjures up disturbing memories of the McCarthy era and the alleged abuses of power when J. Edgar Hoover led the FBI.
Law enforcement excesses in the 1950s and 1960s led guidelines to be rewritten in the 1970s. Jewish and civil liberties groups embraced the reforms, as well as subsequent adaptations over the years.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said that new powers are needed now to effectively combat terrorism, but that they would not allow for the kind of abuses seen in the past.
Many groups have faulted the FBI for taking an overly cautious approach in recent years.
ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, wrote in 1999 that the Justice Department and the FBI could not act aggressively because they were so “hamstrung” by the Hoover legacy, fears of lawsuits, and concerns from conservative lawmakers after the 1993 Waco debacle, where an FBI standoff with a religious cult ended in the deaths of dozens of people.
The current guidelines, however, are “way too broad,” argues Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Saperstein recalled how the Reform movement was watched by the FBI several decades ago and how the group worked to stop abuses against other civil liberties groups.
The RAC, which also argued that the USA Patriot Act was rushed through Congress, is calling for public hearings on Capitol Hill to ensure that the new FBI guidelines are finely focused on preventing terrorism and are implemented in a way that ensures the least amount of infringement on civil rights.
Some congressional lawmakers are already sounding off about the new guidelines.
Sensenbrenner said there is no need “to throw respect for civil liberties into the trash heap” in order to improve the FBI’s ability to fight terrorism.
Some civil rights groups are up in arms over the FBI’s expanded powers. Jewish groups, however, are often especially sensitive to terrorism issues, and sometimes part company with their regular allies on this issue.
The American Civil Liberties Union said that Ashcroft’s decision to rewrite longstanding restrictions on domestic spying “threatens core civil liberties guaranteed under the Constitution and Bill of Rights.”
While the RAC raises some similar concerns, it is reserving its judgement of the guidelines. The ADL is willing to take a firmer stance in favor of the new guidelines, though Lieberman notes that any new enforcement power has to be subject to accountability, congressional oversight and judicial review.
The guidelines themselves are not really the issue, according to Steven Pomerantz, a former assistant director of the FBI who now is a senior advisor on counterterrorism and security for the American Jewish Committee.
The guidelines need to be tweaked, Pomerantz said, but the political climate is also important in determining the FBI’s behavior — because while certain investigations might have been allowed even under the old guidelines, the threshold for proceeding with an investigation depends on other factors.
“It’s not black and white, it’s subject to interpretation,” he said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.