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When Greensboro talks, do the feds listen?

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In an ideal world we like to fantasize that the Greensboro City Council would put away their lie detector machines and hold public hearings featuring testimony from members of the police department’s special intelligence unit and FBI agents assigned to Greensboro.

The department’s disclosure that an employee wearing a wire recorded community meetings and conversations with mostly black community leaders during the tenure of former Chief David Wray leaves many of us questioning what the police were trying to accomplish. Were they onto a plan by Greensboro’s black leadership to establish some kind of criminal racket? Were racist elements in the police force paranoid about black leaders organizing to address their community’s needs?

The first scenario begs credibility. The second sounds like some bizarre reprise of hysterical white segregationist politics from, oh, let’s say 1956.

And what are we to make of the actions of Det. Ernest Cuthbertson, the plainclothes officer who insisted on photographing the license plates of cars bearing anti-war bumper stickers during a January protest held on South Elm Street in response to President Bush’s State of the Union speech?

Both situations suggest a third possible, though completely unsubstantiated, scenario ‘— that the Greensboro Police Department is funneling information about local dissidents to the FBI and other federal agencies. Senate hearings in the 1970s revealed that during the Vietnam era the FBI collected information on hundreds of thousands of Americans, including many who protested against war. More recently, declassified FBI files show that federal agents worked with police in Denver and other cities to gather information about local activists involved in protests against the Iraq war.

Ken Lucas, spokesman for the FBI’s Charlotte office, downplayed the third scenario.

‘“I can’t imagine that we would,’” he said, when asked if the FBI received any of the recordings the Greensboro police made of conversations with local black community leaders. He referred further questions to the police department.

Capt. Gary Hastings, commanding officer of the criminal investigations division, outlined the department’s relationship with the FBI. We found his explanation somewhat reassuring.

‘“The FBI wasn’t involved in any of those things you mentioned,’” he said. ‘“We do have an excellent working relationship with the FBI. They’re primarily involved in criminal investigations such as bank robberies and fraud cases.’”

The captain acknowledged the department does have one officer assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which is responsible for gathering information about domestic or international terrorist threats, including potential acts of violence.

We think it’s important to maintain scrutiny of this relationship.

A March 8 letter from Deputy Under Secretary of Defense to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) acknowledges that the names of 43 anti-war protesters who attended demonstrations outside of military bases and recruiting centers in Vermont and Washington, DC were inadvertently added to a centralized database accessible to a wide array of federal agencies, including the FBI.

And during a hearing held by the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 2, Leahy, a champion of civil liberties, confronted FBI director Robert Mueller with evidence of communication between the FBI and other law enforcement agencies about surveillance of domestic peace groups, as revealed in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

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