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Protesters say freedoms snapped away

St. Petersburg Times

In the weeks before the "shock and awe" military campaign began in Iraq, protesters flocked to street corners and busy intersections in Hernando County voicing their disgust and, at times, their approval of the Bush Administration's plan to oust Saddam Hussein.

Amid the flag- and sign-waving, bullhorns, flying cherry bombs and cries of "hippie," few suspected that authorities were paying much attention to the demonstrators.

So it came as a surprise when Sheriff Richard Nugent, in response to a question from a caller, told listeners of Bob Haa's talk show on local radio station WWJB AM-1450 in July that protesters were being watched and photographed.

Nugent acknowledged that during that height of the antiwar movement, his deputies gathered intelligence on protesters in order to maintain order. The protesters, on the other hand, think that the practice deprived them of their constitutional rights to privacy and to protest grievances against the government.

"Much to my surprise, he did not deny it," said Spring Hill resident Brian Moore, 60, a self-employed personnel recruiter and a former Reform Party congressional candidate.

What's more, activists fear that during the age of the Patriot Act, the files will be shared with the state or federal government in the fight against terrorism.

The sheriff's office said the information was not going to be given to other agencies, such as the FBI, and perhaps never will be given unless it is requested. But that leaves activists uneasy.

"What are we, terrorists?" said Joe Lemieux, 55, one of the anti-war demonstrators, who recently filed to run for county commission. "It's not a particularly comforting thought. What's going on?"

Nugent said his deputies conducted surveillance during the first three protests organized by Moore and Lemieux under the banner of the Hernando County Coalition for Peace and Justice.

"This has nothing to do with the Patriot Act," Nugent said. "We did not know what to expect. We did it on both sides of the aisle. We have the right to collect intelligence."

Nonetheless, Nugent's admission has prompted both Lemieux and Moore to contact the American Civil Liberties Union to find out if that surveillance was legal. Officials at ACLU's Miami office did not return a Times reporter's calls for comment.

Meanwhile, Moore requested the records maintained about him during the 17 scheduled demonstrations in front of Weeki Wachee Springs beginning Feb. 1.

He was "flabbergasted" to learn that the Sheriff's Office kept snapshots of protesters' license plates, information on their spouses and children, vehicle records and a history of former addresses. Moore even had his own file number: No. I2003-2.

Nugent said that his office did not go out of its way to identify participants. But activists are skeptical.

"Makes me wonder," said Moore, who plans to run as a Democrat against GOP incumbent U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite for the 5th Congressional District seat. "The greater threat to our country is the federal government infringing our rights rather than terrorism."

Hernando Chief Deputy Michael Hensley said protesters misconstrued what authorities were trying to do.

"It was not personal," Hensley said. "It could have been anybody. We don't care who it is."

While the Sheriff's Office would not comment on its intelligence-gathering capabilities, Hensley and Nugent both said that their surveillance was not in response to the Patriot Act or elevated threat levels.

Still, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office was the only law enforcement agency in a three-county area to monitor protesters before the war began. Authorities from Citrus and Pasco counties said that they did not gather information about participants and did not recall any such protests in their jurisdictions.

"(Hernando County) is not some remote area," said Hensley, citing the arrest of former Spring Hill resident Hatem Fariz for his alleged support of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. "It's a possibility that there are terrorist ties in this county. We can't ignore the possibility."

Lemieux sees the response as an overreaction.

"We were simply trying to express our disapproval of what the administration was doing," said Lemieux, who owns a chain of health food stores. "The Bush administration has strived on the principle that we are at risk, but it is actually that Bush administration that is escalating the risk."

Since the Patriot Act was adopted, law enforcement agencies have stepped up intelligence gathering on those with suspected ties to known terrorist organizations. In the meantime, Lemieux said, the practice harkens back to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's surveillance of people such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960s.

"It says that Big Brother is invading our privacy and impinging our rights to redress the policies of the government," added Moore.

With anti-globalization protests during the recent Free Trade Agreement of the Americas summit in Miami ending in violence, Hensley said that videotaping both antiwar and pro-war protesters ensured that the demonstrations would be peaceful. Also, just in case things got out of hand and a crime was committed, authorities could track down the participants.

"We never saw anything suspicious except people exercising their constitutional right, which we support and defend," said Nugent.

Still, Moore is unmoved.

"What this says is that we live in a police state," said Moore. "It says that we Americans are not as free as we think we are. We are not a democracy."

- Duane Bourne can be reached at 352 754-6114. Send e-mail to dbourne@sptimes.com
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