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The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been questioning political demonstrators across the country, and in rare cases even subpoenaing them, in an aggressive effort to forestall what officials say could be violent and disruptive protests at the Republican National Convention in New York.
F.B.I. officials are urging agents to canvass their communities for information about planned disruptions aimed at the convention and other coming political events, and they say they have developed a list of people who they think may have information about possible violence. They say the inquiries, which began last month before the Democratic convention in Boston, are focused solely on possible crimes, not on dissent, at major political events.
This is one of those sticky areas. The FBI has a duty to investigate reports of planned crimes, even planned crimes that take place as part of a protest. Conversely they have a duty to be minimally intrusive to those who aren't involved in planning to commit crimes -- in other words, those who are just there to protest. Personally, I would err on the side of leniency for anything related to a political protest, because the chilling effect of having an interview with the FBI is dramatic. But that must be weighed against the fact that there are "anarchist" groups that go into protests with specific intent to commit violence.
With that said, it's hard to tell whether this is a legitimate investigation or a fishing expedition. In the case of the Democratic Convention's "Free Speech Zone", clearly they went too far; but we're not there yet. (In fact, an interesting question would be whether these same interviews were conducted before the Democratic Convention, and if so, were they reported?)
One other thing to consider. Recently Steven Den Beste wrote about the difference between guerilla tactics and terrorism. The short version is that attacks intended to directly harm the enemy are guerilla warfare; (classic) terrorism, on the other hand, is intended to provoke reprisals.
Leaving aside whether Al Qaeda is engaged in classic terrorism or something else, it seems clear to me that people who go into protest situations intending to commit violence are doing so in an effort to provoke a police response. In other words, they aren't trying to accomplish some beneficial goal with the protest, they are merely trying to start a riot. That's terrorism by the classic definition, and it's what these police tactics are trying to deal with.
Why would a classic terrorist want to provoke a reprisal? Simple: it's a no-win situation for the government. The terrorist gets support for his side from his own success and from the public anger about the reprisals. The government loses support from their own people for being unable to prevent the terrorist act, and again for the measures they take in response.
How big a threat is this? I don't know. But it's not necessarily as cut-and-dried a free speech issue as I would like it to be. If the operatives planning to disrupt the convention were affiliated with Al Qaeda no one would have any qualms about trying to pre-empt their actions. But since there is no affiliation, to my knowledge, there's less tolerance for this sort of tactic, even though the people the police are presumably looking for are using classic terrorist tactics.
And the people who are just there to protest peacefully are caught in the middle.