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McCarthyism Is Back, and It’s Coming for the Peace Movement

With rising global tensions, unsurprisingly the same old McCarthyite playbook is again being dusted off. We reject these smears.

Defending Rights & Dissent condemns in the strongest possible terms the increasing McCarthyite attacks on leftwing and peace groups critical of US-policy towards China. As tensions between the US and China escalate, we have unsurprisingly seen attacks against those who dissent from the prevailing foreign policy orthodoxy. Over the weekend, the New York Times published an inflammatory regurgitation of innuendo, aspersions, and propaganda focusing on a number of groups, including Code Pink and the People’s Forum. With the “paper of record” giving these smears a veneer of legitimacy, Senator Marco Rubio sent a letter to the Department of Justice urging them to investigate these activist groups under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. This would not be the first time that biased reporting was used to predicate an FBI investigation.

Defending Rights & Dissent has worked with Code Pink for decades. Just days before the Times published their hit job, we joined with Code Pink to deliver a letter to the State Department about imprisoned journalist Julian Assange. In 2020, we launched our report Still Spying on Dissent: The Enduring Problem of FBI First Amendment Abuse at the People’s Forum. We also co-sponsored the New York session of the Belmarsh Tribunal, which was held at the People’s Forum. In spite of the attempted intimidation of Sen. Rubio, Defending Rights & Dissent fully plans to continue working with both Code Pink and the People’s Forum. 

Code Pink has been a courageous and bold voice and the People’s Forum has been an invaluable space for activists. These efforts to silence them have far-reaching implications beyond just US-China policy.

On October 10, 1960, Defending Rights & Dissent was formed as the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee. The New York Times covered the event, regurgitating the press release issued by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which noted that HUAC had accused six of our founders of being Communists. Over a decade later when we sued the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act, it was revealed the FBI were the true authors of the HUAC press-release the New York Times dutifully parroted. 

In those days, merely opposing HUAC or questioning the FBI’s vast domestic surveillance leviathan was enough to tar someone with suspicion of something sinister. During the Cold War, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, HUAC, and other forces of political repression all treated the holding of verboten views on anything from civil rights to foreign policy as evidence the speaker was part of a subversive plot. According to Hoover, although it was difficult to prove membership in the Communist Party, it was easy to prove they were speaking the “Communist Line.” The FBI compiled reports on the “Communist Line” and did side-by side comparisons with activist groups or political publications. Both membership in a subversive organization or the belief that one may be influenced by subversives opened one up to the same intensive surveillance and dirty tricks of the FBI.

After restrictions were placed on the FBI in the 1970s, the FBI used its nebulous foreign counterintelligence powers to say it was combatting “active measures” in the form of Soviet disinformation and international terrorism to target dissent. The official reasoning may have changed, but the internal logic was the same, and the FBI set out in pursuit of opponents of Ronald Reagan’s murderous Central American policy arguing they were “foreign agents” or supporting terrorism as evidenced by their political views. 

We saw this same playbook repeated again after September 11, 2001 and applied to critics of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the suppression of civil liberties at home. Repeatedly, supporters of Palestinian rights have also been subject to similar McCarthyite tactics. In many cases, the FBI justified its investigations and inquiries based on information coming from right wing groups. That is precisely what Sen. Rubio and others are hoping will be the result of the Times piece. 

With rising global tensions, unsurprisingly the same old McCarthyite playbook is again being dusted off. We reject these smears.


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In 2016, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and the Defending Dissent Foundation joined forces to become:  Defending Rights & Dissent.  We work to make the promise of the Bill of Rights a reality for everyone in the US.  Freedom to dissent is essential to a functioning democracy, and every person under U.S. jurisdiction or control is entitled to Bill of Rights protections. At all times and especially when federal, state, or local governments propose or enact laws or policies that threaten or deny those rights, the people organize, exercising those same rights in the service of protecting them. Most people understand that the country cannot be made safer by sacrificing some rights for all or part of its population. When the people know and exercise their rights, the liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights hold firm and remain self-sustaining.