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by Bill Conroy
Tuesday, Nov. 04, 2003 at 3:34 AM
Evidence has surfaced recently that the FBI has been spying on foreign nations for years.
The revelation is so sensitive that in the wake of the secret surfacing, the FBI has embarked on a mad scramble to cover up the evidence. The Bureau has gone as far as to pressure a federal judge into sealing previously public court records that open a window on the FBI's overseas spying mission.
In addition, with the help of the U.S. Attorney's Office (John Ashcroft's Justice Department) the FBI also sought, through a proposed court order, to seize any computer anywhere that the Bureau suspected might have contained the sensitive court pleadings.
The controversy stems from a civil rights case filed in federal court in Sacramento, Calif., by former FBI agent Lok Thye Lau. In his case, Lau filed a Declaration in late September that detailed his FBI career and the fact that he was engaged as a spy in a dangerous undercover assignment that required him to "work against hostile and aggressive foreign powers for years." Although he is precluded from discussing specifics about that assignment due to national security concerns, the public record available on his case indicates that the likely target country was China.
Why have you heard so little about this case? Well, for the most part, the mainstream media has ignored it -- and consequently, the serious implications raised for civil liberties in this country. As evidence of how the big media was asleep at the wheel in this case, it was the San Antonio Business Journal, a small weekly in South Texas, that broke the story in early October.
After the Business Journal's story was already in print, a federal judge sealed the public court records that the newspaper used for that story. Those records included Lau's Declaration and a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), one of the nation's oldest Hispanic civil rights groups.
In addition, after the Business Journal's story had hit the streets, the U.S. Attorney's Office and FBI sought permission from the court to seize any computer that they suspected of containing the previously public court documents. The court, for now, has refused to grant the FBI that power.
The Associated Press followed the Business Journal's exclusive by publishing a story on the government's efforts to seize computers. In addition, several 1st Amendment press organizations have given the story attention -- such as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The California First Amendment Coalition put its neck on the line by actually posting the controversial "sealed" court pleadings on its Web site at http://www.cfac.org/Attachments/fbi_spy_story.html. A Web blog (bigleftoutside.com) also stepped out on a limb and put links to the pleadings on its site.
The latest development in this breaking story was an effort by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Sacramento to pressure LULAC and Lau's lawyers to turn over documents and computers to the FBI absent a court order.
According to LULAC, the official from the U.S. Attorney's Office who contacted the group stated that he wanted to "shut down media coverage" on the case.
So why all the fuss?
Maybe the FBI has a genuine concern that the information in Lau's Declaration, which they allowed to remain in the public court record for some three weeks, now represents a threat to ongoing FBI spying methods and sources. But, if that's really the case, then why was Lau put back in the field after his undercover assignment as a quite in-the-open FBI agent? And why did the FBI allow Lau's legal claim to progress so far in the court system?
Could there be something else at play here?
If you recall, the American people were told immediately following 9/11 that the FBI (a domestic law enforcement agency) and the CIA (an overseas intelligence agency) were hamstrung by their agency turf limitations and their inability to share intelligence information. To solve the problem, Attorney General Ashcroft brought us the Patriot Act, which broke down the wall between the FBI and CIA in the intelligence game.
Well, if Lau's spy story is true, then that wall may have never existed to begin with, and Ashcroft's Patriot Act argument was based on a false premise. And an even bigger issue looms, one that may offer a hint as to why the Justice Department wants to "shut down" the press coverage of Lau's case.
If the FBI was operating spies in foreign countries prior to 9/11 -- and with Lau, it would seem that was the case dating back to the mid-1980s -- what happened to that intelligence information? Could it have been helpful in preventing 9/11? Who in our government knew or sanctioned such spying activity?
Such questions reach into the very nerve center of power in this country, and they are questions that undoubtedly unnerve those in power -- which may be why there is now an effort on the part of the Justice Department to seal previously public records and to intimidate anyone who might try to shed further light on this case.
(For more news coverage of this issue, go to this http://sanantonio.bizjournals.com/sanantonio/stories/2003/10/20/daily42.html)
Bill Conroy (Wkc6428@aol.com), a former investigative reporter for the Shepherd-Express in Milwaukee, is currently the editor of the San Antonio Business Journal. The opinions expressed in this article are those of its author and do not necessarily represent the views of the San Antonio Business Journal or its parent company.
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