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Political dissent can bring federal agents to door

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"Remarks made toward the president in an antagonistic way are checked out by the Secret Service. That's always been the case," says Jill Spillman, an FBI agent detailed to the Justice Department. "The FBI checks out [possible] domestic terrorism." She says the people visited are under no obligation to answer questions and are not necessarily viewed as suspects.

But Attorney General John Ashcroft's post-September policy is that each tip be looked into. While not every tip leads to a face-to-face visit, surprise encounters with federal agents are leaving some Americans feeling their privacy has been violated - and that their speech has made them targets of official scrutiny.

For example, A.J. Brown, a student at Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina, faced 40 minutes of grilling by two Secret Service agents and a Raleigh police officer in her doorway (she wouldn't let them come in, and they had no search warrant). By her account, they said they were investigating a tip that she had "un-American material" in her apartment. From the doorway, they took particular note of a poster of George W. Bush holding a noose. It read: "We hang on your every word," referring to his unflinching support of the death penalty as governor of Texas.

Then there's San Franciscan Barry Reingold, who was awakened from his afternoon nap by a buzzing intercom on Oct. 23. He called down to the street to find out who it was. "The FBI," was the response. He buzzed the two men up, but decided to meet them in the hall. "I was a little bit shaken up," says Mr. Reingold. "I mean, why would the FBI be interested in me, a 60-year-old retired phone company worker?"

When they asked if he worked out at a certain gym, he realized the reason behind the visit. The gym is where he lifts weights - and expounds on his political views.

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