The publication of a new book on how Americans learned of civil liberty abuses by the US intelligence community, essentially the FBI, during the Civil Rights and Vietnam War era sheds some light on what can happen when government agencies decide, in secret, what they are allowed to in the name of national security.
The book is "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI" Betty Medsger, the Washington Post reporter who covered the story of the break-in that led to the publication of shocking FBI documents. Unsurprisingly, the Attorney General warned their publication could "endanger lives." This should all sound a little familiar.
In an age of less extensive media scrutiny, though hardly less intense in its political divisions, a handful of antiwar activists broke into an FBI office outside of Philadelphia in the hope of finding evidence that the FBI was using illegal or otherwise reprehensible means to destroy the anti-war movement. The burglars, who managed to conceal their identity for 40 years, had reason to believe that J. Edgar Hoover's "secret FBI" was keeping records of its campaign to suppress the growing antiwar movement by surveillance and harassment.
The background to the burglary includes thousands of federal prosecutions of opponents of the war, particularly draft age men who burned their draft cards or refused to serve after their local draft boards rejected claims for conscientious objection. Other prosecutions targeted prominent critics of the war, notably Dr. Benjamin Spock (then America's "baby doctor") and Yale Chaplain Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. in a Boston show trial in 1968.
This last name rings memory's bell for me. I handed Bill Coffin my draft card a few months before that trial in a protest ritual on the Yale campus involving a score or two of others. Some months later the FBI telephoned my roommate on our dorm room telephone.
Beyond legal prosecutions, Hoover's FBI employed secret means of surveillance and "taking names" of war critics -- the sort activities generally regarded by American courts as unconstitutionally "chilling" dissent.
The FBI collected the names of everyone who reserved places on chartered buses to go to the November 1969 anti-war demonstration in Washington by pressuring a bank to show them the checks. They probably missed my name then because I drove down with a couple of companions. My lasting memory from that experience is running from the tear gas.
In another case, the US Army itself deployed 1,000 soldiers to conduct surveillance on war opponents, a practice challenged in court by the ACLU.
The antiwar activists who burgled a local FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, on the night of the Muhammed Ali-Joe Frazier heavyweight championship fight (March 8, 1971), found records in the office files of other targets for surveillance: all Black Student Unions and organizations that "project the demands of black students," according to a directive signed by Hoover himself. A bureau advisory urged agents to "get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox." Other agents were told to prepare a dossier on every black student at Swarthmore College, relying on informants that included a campus security officer and the college switchboard operator, among others.
They also uncovered the existence of the FBI's "COINTELPRO" campaign to "disrupt and otherwise neutralize" old left, new left, antiwar, black, American Indian and other groups. Techniques includes 'dirty tricks' -- fraud, that is, and other practices regarded as crimes when committed by people who are not part of a government organization -- such as sending anonymous 'poison pen' letters to break up marriages, encouraging gang warfare, arousing suspicion and resentment among members of target organizations by spreading rumors, whispers and lies, and burgling these organizations to gain material or spread confusion. In an absurdly flagrant example, the FBI tired to persuade Martin Luther King to commit suicide.
The FBI also used its resources -- and its apparent freedom from oversight -- to smear and blackmail critics. A smear campaign against a rare Congressional critic,claiming he visited prostitutes, cost him his seat. Officials met with newspaper publishers to try to persuade them to fire reporters who wrote stories about questionable FBI activities.
It was Nixon who took these techniques further, leading to the Watergate burglary that drove him from office. Nixonian indulgences included unauthorized wiretaps and targeting 'enemies' for tax audits. The era's extremes led to the exposure and eventual unpopularity of government surveillance of private citizens. Surveillance programs were dismantled in the late 1970s. Congressional reforms also led to the creation of the National Security Agency.
A generation later, following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the passage of the USA Patriot Act and the resources of the Digital Age have enabled previously unimaginable levels of government surveillance of the private activities of American citizens.
Well, we say, things could always be worse. Imagine what Hoover and Nixon could have done with the contemporary resources of data mining. If we do imagine this scenario, we can't help but see the dangers. The 'state' -- a supreme corporate entity entrusted with certain powers over its members -- always poses a danger to the human beings who fall under its authority.
That's why we have rules to limit and 'check' those powers.