The irreverent former public defender Andrew O'Connor sat at a computer in the library of St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M. on Feb. 13, unaware that his life would soon be turned upside down. He saw a woman sitting next to him wearing an anti-war button and remarked "Bush is out of control." Later, according to O'Connor, four police officers entered the room, handcuffed him, read him his rights without informing him of the charges and took him to a police station where he was interrogated for five hours by the FBI and the Secret Service.
O'Connor says the federal agents asked him about his political beliefs and about a student group at the University of Colorado which focuses on Palestinian issues and whose lectures he had attended. They also asked about the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, which does anti-war work.
Laura Mulry, a spokesperson for St. John's, described the incident as the result of "an accident which never should have happened." She said that the nation's threat level had just been raised to orange, and that the college had recently been informed that campuses in the area could be "soft targets" of terrorist attacks.
Campus security had made a unilateral decision to monitor computers in the college library, a fact which irked the college's administration so much that, according to Mulry, St. John's will never again monitor campus computers without instructions from an officer of the college.
By means of this monitoring, campus security became aware of a computer user making "direct threats against the life of President Bush." The Santa Fe Police Department was notified. O'Connor thinks someone else may have been using his account.
Beverly Lennen, chief of police in Santa Fe, said that upon being notified of the threats by campus security, her officers had conversations with the FBI and the Secret Service. She said officers were also able to view information that led them to believe that a crime was being committed.
Chief Lennen professes a high degree of respect for free speech. "What I can tell you is that not only has our City Council passed a resolution, but our department by its daily conduct does support the freedom of speech." She was likely referring to a resolution passed in the wake of the PATRIOT Act stating that the city government will act in a manner consistent with the Constitution.
She continued, "We only take action when that speech would be an actual violation of law. We frequently work with our groups in the community, both pro-war and anti-war, to ensure that their right to speech is protected and they are able to engage in that speech without fear of threat or retaliation from other groups, and that goes for both sides. We are apolitical on this issue. Our duty is to protect." She did not say whether "other groups" includes federal law enforcement agencies.
The FBI and the Secret Service were clearly not acting in an "apolitical" manner, as they questioned O'Connor about his political associations with the two Colorado groups, arguably violating his First Amendment right to freedom of association, which is implicit in the Amendment's "peaceable assembly" clause. What the case of this former public defender seems to demonstrate is that the public does indeed need to be defended, but from the FBI and the Secret Service.
A White House spokesperson said that the White House doesn't handle questions about the president's security, and referred the matter to the Secret Service. Their Albuquerque office responded with a terse, "We don't comment," but their Washington headquarters produced a spokesperson who was more forthcoming, after a fashion: "Any time we receive information of someone threatening any of our protectees or exhibiting an 'unusual direction of interest' (spook-speak for who-knows-what) towards any of our protectees, the Secret Service will follow-up on it.
"If that person was arrested and charged," he went on to say, "I would refer you to the appropriate prosecutorial office, then again, I would be prohibited for privacy reasons from talking about the nature of that investigation or details of that investigation or inquiry or even whether it even took place. That's the privacy of the individual "
Norm Ken of the US Attorney's Office said that there are no charges pending against O'Connor, who has suggested that the issue of a threat to the President's life was only a pretext to get him into custody and question him. If he's right, then the authorities were the lawbreakers in this situation, because our political beliefs are no more the government's business today than they were in 1953, when Senator McCarthy's inquisition was ruining life after life.
D.H. Kerby is a writer in Studio City, Calif.