Political dissent can bring federal agents to door
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For example, A.J. Brown, a student at Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina, faced 40 minutes of grilling by two Secret Service agents and a Raleigh police officer in her doorway (she wouldn't let them come in, and they had no search warrant). By her account, they said they were investigating a tip that she had "un-American material" in her apartment. From the doorway, they took particular note of a poster of George W. Bush holding a noose. It read: "We hang on your every word," referring to his unflinching support of the death penalty as governor of Texas.Skip to next paragraph
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Then there's San Franciscan Barry Reingold, who was awakened from his afternoon nap by a buzzing intercom on Oct. 23. He called down to the street to find out who it was. "The FBI," was the response. He buzzed the two men up, but decided to meet them in the hall. "I was a little bit shaken up," says Mr. Reingold. "I mean, why would the FBI be interested in me, a 60-year-old retired phone company worker?"
When they asked if he worked out at a certain gym, he realized the reason behind the visit. The gym is where he lifts weights - and expounds on his political views.
Since Sept. 11, the sessions have been heated. Once, he recalls, "discussion turned to [Osama] bin Laden and what a horrible murderer he was. I said, 'Yeah, he's horrible and did a horrible thing, but Bush has nothing to be proud of. He is a servant of the big oil companies, and his only interest in the Middle East is oil.' "
Some fellow weightlifters called Reingold a disloyal American. One, apparently, called the government.
So it was that two agents were standing in his hall. "They said, 'You know you are entitled to freedom of speech.' And I said, 'Thank you. That ends our conversation.' " When Reingold closed his door, he heard one of the agents say: "But we still need to do a report."
As the overheard comment suggests, the FBI and Secret Service view many of these checkups as a routine, almost innocuous, part of their job.
Still, the task has taken on fresh relevance after the terrorist attacks.
"Just because we [talked] to ABC Flight School doesn't mean they did something wrong," says Robert Doguim of the Houston FBI. "But how irresponsible of us would it be if we didn't talk to someone?"
He says the Art Car Museum and its exhibit (which had been planned months before Sept. 11) were deemed "not dangerous" after the agents' visit.
But to Huanca, the face-off seemed unnecessary and intimidating. She says the G-men puzzled over each art installation, sneering and saying things like, "What's that supposed to mean?"
Drawing conclusions from cases like this is tricky, since the reality could involve more, or less, than either side tells the media. But Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, finds the anecdotal evidence deeply troubling.
"All of this speaks to the new McCarthyism, where political dissent is being equaled to treason," Mr. Steinhardt says. "It's a very frightening trend: that people are doing nothing more than expressing the very freedoms that we are fighting to preserve - and find themselves with the FBI at their door."