Op-Ed: Tim Davis: ‘Clay Bowler and the F.B.I.’

“It is a grey day when tragedy in one part of the country serves as a pretext for trampling civil liberties in another. American politicians tend to overreact to crises….

“It is a grey day when tragedy in one part of the country serves as a pretext for trampling civil liberties in another. American politicians tend to overreact to crises. They delight in doing so. Crises provide an opportunity to stand out amid the humdrum of paving roads, collecting trash, and the like – to do something great. Crises offer a chance to settle scores and to push agendas that would never fly in daylight. Whatever the motivation, our government’s response to recent unrest has been to increase steadily the police power of the state.

The trend is unwelcome. But it comes as no surprise, then, that in the wake of the tragic shootings of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Judge John Roll, and eighteen others in Arizona, the FBI has launched an investigation of Clay Bowler, a prominent local journalist, for his coverage of last year’s 7th district congressional election.

It happened Tuesday afternoon. FBI special agent Jeff Atwood and Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott came unannounced to Mr. Bowler’s home in Ozark and interrogated him about questions he posed to a congressional candidate at a public forum last year. Videos of the forum reveal nothing untoward. Anyone who knows Clay will attest that he is a meek and thoughtful person. He is true to form in the video – calmly asking questions about campaign contributions to a candidate who prefers not to answer. No one thought it worthwhile to file a police report at the time of the forum, which was held in September 2010.

This raises a nagging thought: why did Clay Bowler become the target of an FBI investigation? Clay is one of the 7th district’s most respected and most widely read political critics. Candidates for elected office seek out and covet his endorsement. Thousands of people across SW Missouri read his work. And none of this is a secret. Did the FBI not realize who Clay was when they identified him as a potential threat to Congress? Where was the FBI during the congressional campaign in which Clay figured so prominently? And where was Sheriff Arnott? Clay Bowler contributed some of the most painstaking and original research on the 7th district race. He did so as a responsible critic. Many times I discussed with Clay issues that never entered his published work because, as a writer, he erred on the side of caution, only giving voice to material that could be verified.

Since nothing about Clay’s manner gives offense and since his writing is straightforward political journalism – what triggered the FBI investigation? There are no good answers to this question. If we assume that the FBI and Sheriff Arnott carried out their duties in good faith, their criteria for identifying potential assassins must match the traits of whom? A polite, ordinary person who participates in local government? If so – the FBI is grasping at straws when it comes to protecting Congress. It raises doubts about their competence. And that is no comfort to anyone.

Suppose, however, that Sheriff Arnott and FBI agent Atwood were not acting in good faith. Maybe they knew that Clay was a widely respected critic and that his research made people uncomfortable – and they went to his home anyway. What are the implications of this? For one thing, it would confirm what politicians who know Clay suspect – that he was targeted not because of anything he did, and not because he presented a physical threat, but because of the content of his writing. Specifically, Clay made allegations about corruption in parts of the Republican Party. With his extensive research, he sketched a plausible case. Evidently, someone felt this was a problem, and Sheriff Arnott and the FBI were the tools to do something about it. The story line is so Putinesque.

When it comes to Clay and the targeting of him – any wrongdoing will, of course, be denied. And a pretext can be worked up over time. But, between now and then, perhaps the reader will reflect on two final points.

First, what was Greene County Sheriff Arnott doing outside his jurisdiction? He did not come as a private citizen. He came in uniform with badge and gun, purporting to act in his official capacity. Is there no crime in Greene County such that Mr. Arnott must pursue journalists in neighboring counties? The Sheriff’s Department said that Mr. Arnott did not initially know where Clay lived. That may be true. But – if the Ozark address was not a giveaway – at what point did Sheriff Arnott realize that he was no longer in Greene County? And from that point, why did he proceed? And why did he not inform Joey Kyle, the Christian County Sheriff?

Second, this is not Clay’s first brush with the Federal government. In December, the Federal Election Commission ended a six-month inquiry into his coverage of the 7th district race. The F.E.C. ultimately concluded that Clay did nothing wrong, but only after forcing him to mount a costly defense.

This incident with Mr. Bowler and the FBI is no small matter. If the FBI and Sheriff Arnott acted in good faith, they are plainly inept. If they acted in bad faith, it was for the purpose of silencing a political critic. They felt they could get away with it. And the people of SW Missouri owe it to themselves to protest in the strongest terms.”

Timothy Davis lives in Branson, Missouri. Davis endorsed Billy Long for U.S. Congress in October. Editorial was submitted on14 January, 2011.

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