By Cherri Foytlin, Bridge the Gulf
It sounds like the stuff of movie scripts and novel fodder, the idea of darkly clothed men sneaking in and out of hotel rooms, leaving behind watch battery-sized listening devices, hidden in phone receivers and taped to the inside of lamp shades. Yet during the not-so-long-ago civil rights era, that seemed to be the primary business of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In the case of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the FBI felt it was in America’s best interest to uncover the rabble-rouser as a communist -- the most fearful of "ists," at the time. Unfortunately for them, they never could get King to admit to Bolshevik leanings.
They were, however, successful in revealing that he was human, and as susceptible as any to making mistakes, in this case involving alleged marital transgressions. Not wanting to have spent good taxpayer money for nothing, the FBI then dogged the civil rights leader with a host of approaches designed to embarrass and discredit him.
They didn't get what they wanted, but by the use of domestic spying, they got what they needed and then used it to the full extent of their capabilities. It wasn't the first time, and from what we have seen from recently disclosed agency records regarding the infiltration and surveillance of the Occupy Movement, it won't be the last.
But the FBI is merely one player in the American "Spy vs. Thy" tradition of domestic surveillance. Without the proper context of this and many other previous federal civil liberty intrusions, a person might think that the whistleblower Edward Snowden's recent affirmation that the National Security Agency (NSA) is amassing electronic data on millions of Americans is merely an issue of our times. But to make that assertion, one would have to overlook the Alien and Sedition Acts of the late eighteenth century, the union busting attempts of the 1800s, the Palmer Raids following World War I, and the near constant large-scale domestic intrusions to civil, cultural, human and environmental rights leaders since America began.
Once we add the historical background of the unlawful and unethical federal surveillance of the citizenry, Snowden’s comment, "I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed for even an instance," seems sort of sad.
There have been many revelations, and yet little has changed. In fact, it has only gotten worse, as laws which hasten the demise of the fast-fading idea of "open society," including the PATRIOT Act, have been established
The only real change is the use of corporate fingers to do the digging. No longer is it a single entity sneaking into a bedroom listening for a moaning mattress, now it's huge corporations collecting groans of dissent to share with secret committees filled with bought-and-paid-for corporate-interest puppets.
What used to be hidden, almost shameful, is now a near daily intrusion made accessible at the moment of dial up or sign-on.
In recent days, the response of the American people to Snowden's dissent has leaned toward either outrage or the usual, "If you haven't done anything wrong, what do you have to fear?"
The real question is who gets to decide what is considered wrong? At a time when only 26 percent of Americans claim to trust the government, why would 56 percent trust that the government would use their personal data responsibly?
Were it not for the newest "ist" -- “terrorist" -- the NSA would probably be worried right now. But as it stands, over half of the population has been seduced into thinking that the fear of some is worth the dismantling of the privacy rights of the many.
This conversation is close to my heart. It wasn't that long ago that I found myself, along with others, falsely accused of live-streaming a federal hearing involving BP's health settlement, and was removed in handcuffs by federal marshals.
The "proof" that I was shown as the cause of our removal was a print-out of a photo I had taken outside of the courthouse and posted to Facebook hours before.
It's no secret that those of us who were removed were all from the frontlines in the struggle to bring BP to justice. They knew who we were, they wanted us gone, and they searched until they found a reason to make that happen. In their eyes, all the proof they needed for any "wrong doing" was a mere click away.
My Facebook page is public and it wouldn't have taken the NSA or the FBI to check it out. Why were the federal marshals there in the first place, if not to look for some reason to get me and my friends out of that courtroom? What role did BP play in our expulsion from that public hearing?
That is the concern and the danger that we must all consider when reacting to domestic spying and the possible overuse of power from a government cloaked by the blanket cause of "national security." How do we trust that this information will be used as something even slightly more beneficial than a modern-day witch hunt?
It is doubtful we would ever know, at least not in a timely way. King's records are sealed until 2027, nearly 70 years since the time that the surveillances occurred. We have no real way of knowing what the motivations are for the NSA's warrantless data mining endeavors. How could we?
We do not have access to their phone calls or emails.
(Photo by Cherri Foytlin via Bridge the Gulf.)