Opinion writer

East Germany’s Ministry for State Security, also known as the Stasi, posed a major challenge during my three-year stint as an attache at the U.S. Embassy in Bonn during the 1960s. Detecting and preventing Stasi agents from penetrating the security of U.S. diplomatic facilities in West Germany was a 24-7 undertaking.

The East German secret police were even more ruthless and relentless in operations against their own citizens. Political suppression in that communist state was total. There was no room for dissent. Thousands of East Germans were arbitrarily imprisoned for “internal security” reasons.

So it was especially galling to learn upon returning to the states in 1969 that the FBI had a counterintelligence program, known as COINTELPRO, that was, in some ways, as pernicious as the threat we were working against overseas.

Senate hearings in the 1970s revealed that the FBI, under the guise of protecting national security, had treated rights guaranteed by the First Amendment as little more than a collection of antiquated wishes best ignored.

With its surveillance of citizens, infiltration of civil rights groups and disruption of legal activities, the FBI’s counterintelligence program echoed the behavior of East Germany’s Stasi. The FBI acknowledges on its Web site that “COINTELPRO was later rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging first amendment rights and for other reasons.”

Fortunately, Congress reined in the FBI, placing it behind, and not beyond, the Constitution.

Where are we now?

The revelations that the Justice Department had secretly seized journalists’ phone records and that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status show that government’s heavy hand has not been lifted. Are these examples of COINTELPRO revisited?

Not quite, though they are disturbing.

Governments spend millions to prevent secrets from falling into enemy hands. A Justice Department probe into a compromised Middle East intelligence operation last year was not focused on the surreptitious work of a foreign power. The unlawful disclosure came from within.

The Justice Department sought to discover who in the U.S. government allegedly told the Associated Press about a failed al-Qaeda plot in Yemen.

The compromised Yemeni operation differs from some breakdowns in national security for its cause. Chalk up that serious breach to hubris: the leaker’s puerile chest-thumping about having bested a sworn enemy or, worse, a self-serving desire to burnish the Obama administration’s credentials as an al-Qaeda slayer.

Ann Telnaes animation: John Boehner’s selective accountability (Ann Telnaes/The Washington Post)

In this regard, the administration has only itself to blame.

On top of the mistakes made by a U.S. official leaking the nation’s secrets, the administration compounded things by launching a dragnet for the records of calls received and made from 20 phone lines (including office, home and cell numbers) of the AP journalists in five area codes and three states.

Talk about power running amok.

Meanwhile, back in the bureaucracy, Internal Revenue Service workers were having a high old time putting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status through hoops. IRS employees were instructed to be on the “lookout” for groups with “tea party” and “patriot” in their names, according to the report of the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration.

The acting IRS commissioner has already been forced to walk the plank, and more heads may roll. The IRS has a steep hill to climb to gain the public’s trust. But there is one bright spot: This misbehavior was detected and exposed by government self-policing. Of course, the selective screening never should have occurred. But the inspector general system created to ferret out government fraud, waste and abuse worked in this case.

The Justice Department, meanwhile, is in an even deeper hole.

Who can take seriously the department’s mission, as stated by its Office of Privacy and Civil Liberties, “to protect the privacy and civil liberties of the American people”?

Famed First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams told the Daily Beast this week that the Justice Department’s broad seizure of journalists’ phone records was “certainly one of the most intense intrusions by the government into a pressroom that I can remember.”

“Why couldn’t they put this issue before a judge?” Abrams asked. “What they have done is foreclose any meaningful response by the AP. This isn’t just seeking a record of one journalist for one day. This is breaking and entering into the heart of the journalistic process of the Associated Press.”

Media outlets covering D.C. affairs should also be concerned. Journalists who draw on confidential sources while aggressively covering the city’s corruption scandal may now wonder if U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen is going after their phone records. After all, it was Machen’s office that served the subpoenas in the AP case.

COINTELPRO? No. Unchecked government power? Yes.

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