For several weeks, starting before the Democratic convention, F.B.I. officers have been questioning potential political demonstrators, and their friends and families, about their plans to protest at the two national conventions. These heavy-handed inquiries are intimidating, and they threaten to chill freedom of expression. They also appear to be a spectacularly poor use of limited law-enforcement resources. The F.B.I. should redirect its efforts to focus more directly on real threats.
Six investigators recently descended on Sarah Bardwell, a 21-year-old intern with a Denver antiwar group, who quite reasonably took away the message that the government was watching her closely. In Missouri, three men in their early 20's said they had been followed by federal investigators for days, then subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury. They ended up canceling their plans to show up for the Democratic and Republican conventions.
The F.B.I. is going forward with the blessing of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel - the same outfit that recently approved the use of torture against terrorism suspects. In the Justice Department's opinion, the chilling effect of the investigations is "quite minimal," and "substantially outweighed by the public interest in maintaining safety and order." But this analysis gets the balance wrong. When protesters are made to feel like criminal suspects, the chilling effect is potentially quite serious. And the chances of gaining any information that would be useful in stopping violence are quite small.
The knock on the door from government investigators asking about political activities is the stuff of totalitarian regimes. It is intimidating to be visited by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, particularly by investigators who warn that withholding information about anyone with plans to create a disruption is a crime.
And few people would want the F.B.I. to cross-examine their friends and family about them. If engaging in constitutionally protected speech means subjecting yourself to this kind of government monitoring, many Americans may decide - as the men from Missouri did - that the cost is too high.
Meanwhile, history suggests that the way to find out what potentially violent protesters are planning is not to send F.B.I. officers bearing questionnaires to the doorsteps of potential demonstrators. As became clear in the 1960's, F.B.I. monitoring of youthful dissenters is notoriously unreliable. The files that were created in the past often proved to be laughably inaccurate.
The F.B.I.'s questioning of protesters is part of a larger campaign against political dissent that has increased sharply since the start of the war on terror.
At the Democratic convention, protesters were sent to a depressing barbed-wire camp under the subway tracks. And at a recent Bush-Cheney campaign event, audience members were required to sign a pledge to support President Bush before they were admitted.
F.B.I. officials insist that the people they interview are free to "close the door in our faces," but by then the damage may already have been done. The government must not be allowed to turn a war against foreign enemies into a campaign against critics at home.