In his recent speech on surveillance, President Obama treated the misuse of intelligence gathering as a relic of American history. It was something done in the bad old days of J. Edgar Hoover, and never countenanced by recent administrations. But the accumulation of menacing stories—from fusion centers to “joint terrorism task forces” to a New York “demographics unit” targeting Muslims—is impossible to ignore. The American Civil Liberties Union has now collected instances of police surveillance and obstruction of First Amendment‐protected activity in over half the states. From Alaska (where military intelligence spied on an anti-war group) to Florida (where Quakers and anti-globalization activists were put on watchlists), protesters have been considered threats, rather than citizens exercising core constitutional rights. Political dissent is a routine target for surveillance by the FBI.
Admittedly, I am unaware of the NSA itself engaging in politically driven spying on American citizens. Charles Krauthammer says there has not been a “single case” of abuse. But the NSA is only one part of the larger story of intelligence gathering in the US, which involves over 1,000 agencies and nearly 2,000 private companies. Moreover, we have little idea of exactly how information and requests flow between agencies. Consider the Orwellian practice of “parallel construction.” Reuters has reported that the NSA gave “tips” to the Special Operations Division (SOD) of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which also shared them with the Internal Revenue Service.
The legal status of such information sharing is murky at best: the national security data is not supposed to be used for law enforcement purposes. Apparently the SOD sidestepped these niceties by re-creating criminal investigations from scratch, fabricating alternative grounds for suspecting the targets. Thus the “parallel construction” of two realities for the law enforcers: one actual, secret record of how targets were selected, and another specially crafted for consumption by courts. Two senior Drug Enforcement Administration officials defended the program and called it legal, but did not disclose their reasoning. At present, the practice looks like little more than intelligence laundering. Five senators asked the Department of Justice to assess the legality of “parallel construction;” it has yet to respond.
I have little doubt that the DEA used parallel construction in cases involving some pretty nasty characters. It must be tempting to apply “war on terror” tactics to the “war on drugs.” Nevertheless, there are serious legal and ethical concerns here. One of the American revolutionaries’ chief complaints against the British Crown was the indiscriminate use of “general warrants,” which allowed authorities to search the homes of anyone without particularized suspicion they had committed a crime. Thus the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution decrees that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.” Law enforcers aren’t supposed to set up “dragnet surveillance” of every communication, or use whatever data stores are compiled by the National Security Agency, unless there is a true security threat.
Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI’s COINTELPRO program engaged in domestic covert action designed to disrupt groups engaged in the civil rights, antiwar, and communist movements. As Lawrence Rosenthal has observed, “History reflects a serious risk of abuse in investigations based on the protected speech of the targets,” and politicians at the time responded. Reviewing intelligence agency abuses from that time period, the Church Committee issued a series of damning reports in 1975-76, leading to some basic reforms. If a new Church Committee were convened, it would have to cover much of the same ground. Moreover, it would need to put in place real safeguards against politicized (or laundered) domestic intelligence gathering. Those are presently lacking. I have yet to find a case where the parties involved in any of the intelligence politicization (or laundering) were seriously punished. Nor have I seen evidence that the victims of such incidents have received just compensation for the unwarranted intrusion on their affairs.
Before we can develop better surveillance policy, we need something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to review (and rebuke) the politicization of intelligence gathering post-9/11. Too many privacy activists have been unwilling to admit the persistence of catastrophic threats that may only be detected by spies. But the US government has been even less moored to reality, unwilling to admit that a runaway surveillance state has engaged in precisely the types of activities that the Bill of Rights is designed to prevent. To have a debate about the proper balance between liberty and security, we need to confront the many cases where misguided intelligence personnel spied on activists with neither goal in mind.
Frank Pasquale is Professor of Law at the University of Maryland. His research agenda focuses on challenges posed to information law by rapidly changing technology, particularly in the health care, internet, and finance industries. Frank accepts comments via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the five months since the world first learned of Edward Snowden, story after story based on documents disclosed by the young whistleblower have filled out a picture of the National Security Agency (NSA) as an organization with a limitless — and almost indiscriminate — hunger for information. Today, Glenn Greenwald, Ryan Gallagher, and Ryan Grim add a startling new dimension to that portrait by revealing that the agency has contemplated ways to use its troves of data to discredit and undermine individuals who the agency believes are “radicalizing others through incendiary speeches” but who lack any ties to actual criminality. The government is apparently seeking out “personal vulnerabilities” of these individuals, including their online sexual activity, hoping to expose them as hypocrites to their followers. While all of the targets are outside the United States, at least one of them is a U.S. person — meaning, either a citizen or a permanent resident.
As Greenwald notes, it’s a story that’s eerily reminiscent of past abuses of government surveillance authority. Greenwald’s new report does not provide evidence of the NSA marshaling its vast databases to influence individuals or events within the United States. But you need not be a conspiracy theorist or a novelist with a knack for bending history to imagine how granting the NSA the power to “collect it all” might have seriously chilling and destructive repercussions here at home.
In fact, the NSA appears to be taking this effort right out of the shameful playbook of our not-so-distant history. Most infamously, as part of the COINTELPRO program, J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) obsessively monitored the activities of Martin Luther King, Jr., picking and choosing from the results to produce a report chock full of insinuations about King’s role in an evolving Communist conspiracy against the United States. Never mind that King unwaveringly espoused non-violence. It was King’s rising public stature and broadly influential political ideas that led the government to see him as a threat.
The FBI viewed no space as off limits. The agency consistently bugged King’s hotel rooms to monitor his planning of the 1963 March on Washington and to keep tabs on his strategic partnerships with other civil-rights leaders. But it also sought to compile a dossier of embarrassing information about King’s private sex life that the government could (and did) employ to discredit King and obstruct his political efforts.
King was not alone on the government’s long list of targets; he shared marquee billing with boxer Muhammed Ali, humorist Art Buchwald, author Norman Mailer, and even Senator Howard Baker. But the greater scandal was that — as the Church Committee revealed in 1976 — these big names appeared alongside more than one million other Americans, including half a million so-called “subversives.”
That is why, as disturbing as it is to read about the FBI’s sordid history of targeting domestic political “enemies,” the potential of the NSA to revive those tactics today (as exposed by Greenwald’s article) is alarming on a profoundly different scale. In the age of mass call-tracking and XKeyScore, hotel-room bugs seem almost quaint.
Indeed, Greenwald’s new story is a warning shot to those of us who have thus far ignored the Snowden revelations on the basis of having “nothing to hide.” As Greenwald makes clear, the subjects of the NSA’s newly exposed effort to target individuals with influence on social media have tangential (if any) ties to real terrorists or violent extremists. And as the ACLU has explained, the entire premise of the NSA’s focus on so-called “radicalizers” — the theory that a person’s adoption of what the government views as “radical” ideas is a step to terrorism — has been debunked. Intelligence programs based on that discredited theory are not just wrong, they’re ineffective. But they do very real damage to belief communities and political activists singled out for surveillance based on their views.
The efforts reported by Greenwald cut to the heart of the zone of expression and association that must remain free from intrusive, dragnet surveillance, both abroad and at home. In his very first public words, Snowden himself addressed the alarming consequences of the NSA’s hunger for obtaining and storing an incomprehensibly vast record of our lives:
Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded…[T]hey can use the system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrong-doer.
In the months since the first Snowden revelations, few have managed to evoke the existential threat presented by unhinged NSA surveillance with such plain, direct force. In an instant, Greenwald’s new story has brought this surveillance nightmare— “collect it all” meets COINTELPRO — jarringly close to the here and now.
“There is no doubt now that there was a conspiracy, yet most of us are not very angry about it. The conspiracy to kill the president of the United States was also a conspiracy against the democratic system –and thus a conspiracy against you. I think you should get very angry about that.” – Gaeton Fonzi, Investigator HSCA
It matters because the murder of President Kennedy was not only a conspiracy but a true coup d etat. The powers behind it, did not only come away with it, but took control over the new government and orchestrated the cover-up. These powers included some of the highest elected officials like president Lyndon Johnson and later presidents, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, former CIA director Allen Dulles, John McCloy and Arlen Specter.
It matters because a coup d’etat that was successfully kept secret in a democratic country means, by default, that the succeeding government was illegitimate.
It matters because the American government continues to LIE about the Kennedy assassination. The vast majority of the American people does not believe the official version because of a preponderance of evidence to the contrary, evidence that was uncovered not by the government but by private concerned citizens. The majority of the American people KNOWS their government is still lying. How can Americans honestly export their democratic values and principles with the knowledge that their government is lying?
It matters because if the government is still lying about the Kennedy assassination, it essentially means that the powers that killed John F. Kennedy are still in charge this very day. Therefore the Kennedy assassination is NOT just an historical event of a distant past. It is an event that has changed the course of history and has set the stage for the political situation of today. In short, it has affected all our lives to some extent, but we do not know exactly how or why.
It matters because the mainstream media continues to support, and even endorse, the official version of the Kennedy assassination. We must, therefore, seriously question if there is indeed freedom of speech and freedom of press in America.
It matters because the framing of Lee Harvey Oswald, his denial of a fair legal representation and trial, and the systematic distortion of his legacy, is one of the great injustices in American history, not only to him, but for his family and the American people as a whole.
It matters because John F. Kennedy was not the only one that was killed. The path to the truth is littered with dead bodies of mostly innocent and patriotic people killed just because they knew something, just because they had seen something, or because they tried to expose a level of corruption that, at the time, was unequaled in American history. And some of these cases are in a much less distant past than the death of John F. Kennedy.
If the citizens of a democratic society are not able to uncover the truth about the assassination of their own elected president, they effectively have no control over their destiny. They may want, and indeed need, to believe differently but that does not make it less of a lie. In short: Wake up, get angry and take your country back!
Why does every American know the expression: “I love my country, but I don’t trust my government”? America is indeed a great country. It should stay that way.
In the wake of the continuing leaks about the NSA’s activities, most commentators are understandably still trying to get to grips with the enormity of what has been happening. But John Naughton, professor of the public understanding of technology at the UK’s Open University, tackles a very different question on his blog: what is likely to happen in the future, if things carry on as they are?
Naughton notes that the NSA’s mission statement includes the following phrase: “to gain a decision advantage for the Nation and our allies under all circumstances.” “Under all circumstances” means that as the Internet grows — and as we know, it is currently growing rapidly — so the NSA will naturally ask for resources to allow it to do tomorrow what it is doing today: monitoring more or less everything that happens online. Naughton then asks where that might lead if the political climate in the US remains sufficiently favorable to the NSA that it does, indeed, get those resources:
The obvious conclusion therefore, is that unless some constraints on its growth materialise, the NSA will continue to expand. It currently has 35,000 employees. How many will it have in ten years’ time? Who can say: 50,000, maybe? Maybe even more? So we’re confronted with the likelihood of the growth of a bureaucratic monster.
How will such a body be subjected to democratic oversight and control? Let me rephrase that: can such a monster be subjected to democratic control?
Although optimists might answer ‘yes’, Naughton points to the FBI as an example of what has already happened in this area:
those with long memories recall the fear and loathing that J. Edgar Hoover, the founder — and long-term (48 years) Director — of the FBI aroused in important segments of the American polity. The relatively restrained Wikipedia entry for him claims that even US presidents feared him and quotes Harry Truman as saying that “Hoover transformed the FBI into his private secret police force”. “We want no Gestapo or secret police”, Truman is reported as saying. “FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail. J. Edgar Hoover would give his right eye to take over, and all congressmen and senators are afraid of him.”
He then goes on to draw the obvious parallel with a possible tomorrow:
Now spool forward a decade or so and imagine a Director of the NSA, a charismatic ‘securocrat’ imbued with a mission to protect the United States from terrorists and whatever other threats happen to be current at the time. He (or she) has 50,000+ operatives who have access to every email, clickstream log, text message, phone call and social-networking post that every legislator has ever made. S/he is a keystroke away from summoning up cellphone location logs showing every trip a lawmaker has made, from teenager-hood onwards, every credit- and debit-card payment. Everything.
And then tell me that lawmakers will not be as scared of that person as their predecessors were of Hoover.
- Zero Sum: Americans Must Sacrifice Some Security to Reform the NSA (theatlantic.com)
Whoever imagines our first black president and his first black attorney general had little or nothing to do with naming Assata Shakur its “most wanted terrorist” list is deep in denial and delusion. “Terrorist,” as my colleague Glen Ford points out, has never been anything but a political label, applied by the authorities for their own political purposes. The international legal angle as well, with Assata Shakur receiving political asylum from the Cuban government the last 30 years, also makes her placement on that list something that Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama absolutely had to carefully consider and approve.
A lot has changed in the forty years since Assata Shakur was wounded and captured in New Jersey. The press conference announcing her capture was doubtless headed up by white police and district attorneys. Back then, black faces were pretty scarce in the top ranks of cops and prosecutors anywhere, and J. Edgar Hoover had only recently left the FBI. Last week’s announcement of the $2 million bounty on Assata’s head was anchored by a high ranking black cop, and of course, there are black faces in the offices of president and US Attorney General. People who call themselves progressives, do call that “progress,” don’t they?
The premiere federal initiative for political policing was something called COINTELPRO. COINTELPRO was a secret “counterintelligence,” as in “counter-intelligent” and/or evil multiplied by stupid federal program which for 25 years labeled thousands of civic organizations, churches, labor unions, and grassroots movements as threats to “national security.” Federal agents secretly coordinated local police and media assets in hundreds of campaigns to discredit and destroy those organizations, utilizing illegal surveillance, agents provocateur and media slander. Individual leaders and participants were harassed, falsely prosecuted and imprisoned, and sometimes murdered. COINTELPRO’s existence only came to light as a result of US Senate select committee chaired by Senator Frank Church hearings in 1975.
The good news about COINTELPRO was first, that the government of those days wasn’t bold enough, that it felt too hemmed in and prevented by the American people from openly targeting political dissidents for assassination and murder, and second, that it eventually did come to light. Government officials even had to pay token damages in a handful of cases, such as the murder of Illinois Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton, and publicly claim their official misconduct had ended.
Forty years later though, we live in the era of secret kidnappings, regular torture, ghost prisons and executive branch murder by drones or special ops teams. Today the federal Department of Homeland Security funds counter-terrorism fusion centers which openly disseminate the kind of inflammatory and fanciful disinformation to local police and security contractors about those the government wants targeted that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI agents had to come around and whisper in their ears. Now that is progress.
Forty years and change ago, the whole constellation of African American leadership wrapped its arms around the segments of the black movement that came under vicious police assault. I was a member of the Black Panther Party in Chicago in 1969 and 70, and we never had as many friends as we did when our offices were riddled with gunfire or our members murdered by police. Back then, when everyone from the Urban League and the NAACP to Operation Breadbasket and the Afro-American Patrolman’s League stood up for us. Those who’ve viewed the recently released documentary Free Angela Davis & All Political Prisoners can see the same phenomenon of four decades ago, with Rev. Ralph David Abernathy wrapping his arms around “our sister Angela Davis” when she was accused of murder in the deaths of a judge and others in California.
It’s been a week now since the $2 million dollar bounty and “most wanted terrorist” announcement. In that time, not a single nationally noted African American “leader” has raised his or her voice. Not Ben Jealous. Not a single black mayor or member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Not Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, and certainly not the presidential lap dog Al Sharpton. Sharpton has worn wires for the FBI more than once, and is credibly accused of trying to get close to people who were rumored to be close to Assata Shakur in the 1980s. Those people wisely avoided Rev. Al.
Such is the pressure of subservient conformity among the black political class that not a single African American politician, religious leader, or personage of national note has opened his or her mouth in Assata Shakur’s defense, with the solitary exception of Angela Davis, once a political prisoner and fugitive in the days before the word “terrorist” had been coined. Lockstep conformity like this is hard to shake. In their 45 minutes in an otherwise excellent Democracy Now show mostly devoted to Assata Shakur’s case, neither Shakur’s attorney Lennox Hinds nor Angela Davis could bring themselves even to hint that the president and attorney general were responsible for branding her as the nation’s “most wanted terrorist.”
Four decades have seen the flowering of elite affirmative action in the military, corporate America and in American political life. Our black political class never tires of holding their own illustrious careers up as “the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream.” But the fact is that US corporations couldn’t do business in Africa without black faces. The US couldn’t give military aid and training for a quarter century to 52 out of 54 African governments, arming all sides of every civil and international conflict in the most war torn regions of the planet, without black diplomats, black admirals and black generals. It couldn’t deploy the world’s most massive prison and police state without hundreds of thousands of black prison guards and police, some in the most senior positions and many more in line behind them.
All these are the fruits of what passes for social and racial “progress” in these United States.
This then, is the real function of corporate and elite affirmative action, and of the black political class itself. Whether it’s moving the corporate agenda of gentrification through the destruction of public housing, carrying out social security and Medicare cuts, or waging open war upon the unapproved segments of the African American movement for justice and liberation, black faces in high places have repeatedly proven themselves the more effective evil, able to blunt leftish opposition and carry out policies that white elites can only dream of without their help.
Assata Shakur is not a terrorist. She was shot with her hands in the air, and no residue from gunfire was detected on her hands or clothes or that would have been introduced as evidence at her trial. Her all white jury was instructed to convict her for simply being there, and they did just that. She was a political prisoner, and the only “crime” she can reasonably be accused of is escaping and living out her life the last three decades in Cuba. Government officials do admit that her “terrorist” activity consists of occasional writings and speeches which advocate radical change, and the example of her peaceful life and political asylum 90 miles from Florida.
If that’s all it takes to be a “terrorist,” many thousands of today’s yesterday’s and tomorrow’s black and non-black political activists inside the U.S. are “terrorists” as well. There’s a global war on terror, and now it openly includes the black liberation movement, basically everybody to the left of the established black political class. In the wake of this announcement, can there be any doubt that many more names are or will soon come up at the president’s “terror Tuesday” meetings, at which the White House boasts it considers who next to kidnap or murder? We’re all fair game now.
President Obama obviously hopes the label “terrorist” will scare present and future activists from learning what there is to know from the proud traditions of African American and other resistance to empire. He hopes to intimidate and frighten ordinary people, especially young people, into the same kind of conformity as their supposed “leaders.”
Back in 2007 and 2008, candidate Barack Obama confided to editorial boards and others a number of times that Ronald Reagan was his favorite president. We should have listened to him a lot more closely. It’s a safe guess now, that J. Edgar Hoover is his favorite cop.
Bruce A. Dixon can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.
Though never elected to any office, for 50 years he was more powerful than presidents. As head of the FBI he knew what everyone else wanted to keep hidden.