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Moats: Shades Of J. Edgar

I was not a student radical in the 1960s, but I saw some radical stuff. I saw demonstrators throwing rocks through windows in downtown Berkeley and police swooping down with tear gas and billy clubs. I didn’t see when police, a year later, shot and killed an innocent bystander, blinded another and wounded even more.

I was there when students occupied the student center at my campus, but when my friend and I wondered whether we ought to get ourselves arrested, we looked at each other and said, “Nah.”

There were other things I didn’t see. I didn’t see the secret war that Ronald Reagan, then California governor, was waging in tandem with J. Edgar Hoover against people who held points of view they disapproved of.

A recent book by journalist Seth Rosenfeld is called “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power.” It chronicles in meticulous detail Reagan’s career, going back to his acting days, as an FBI informant, and how he and Hoover used each other to quash dissent and ruin lives.

According to Rosenfeld, the FBI routinely carried out burglaries, illegal wiretaps and surveillance of people, not because they had committed crimes or had criminal intentions but because they had certain ideas. Reagan routinely fed the FBI names of people whom he considered to be subversives, though the record makes clear it was Hoover and Reagan who were really subverting the Constitution, the rule of law and ordinary standards of decency. A lot of this came out in the 1970s, and Hoover’s reputation has suffered, though Rosenfeld’s book enlarges our view of the reach of the FBI, Reagan’s complicity and the damage they did together.

I’ve been thinking about all this because of the recent revelations of widespread, unchecked government surveillance of all of us. Government agents don’t have to break into an office to plant a bug. They can employ the latest electronic eavesdropping technology developed by the National Security Agency. But the effect is the same.

Hoover kept a list of thousands of people he considered dangerous who could be arrested and held without charge in the case of national emergency. We have no Hoover now, but we have had Dick Cheney, and not so long ago the government was rounding up people, not because of a list, but because they had Arab-sounding names.

This kind of overreach is inspired by fear — fear of communism in Hoover’s day, fear of Islamic extremism today. And it’s times like this when we have to stand especially strong for the Constitution and for decent behavior by those who are supposed to be protecting us. Senator Leahy is working to rein in the NSA and President Obama appears grudgingly willing to go along with some of it.

We must remember the abuses of the past, in order to realize how fragile our freedoms are and how important it is to resist police-state methods in a democracy.

David Moats is an author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
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