February is Black History Month, and in celebration of it, and in salutary warning that the mantra ‘if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear’ is deeply flawed (in fact it’s batshit crazy), we will look at the US government’s history of spying its own citizens during their struggle for equality in ‘the land of the free’.
The FBI and COINTELPRO
In 1956 the FBI established the COINTELPRO program (COunter INTELligence PROgram) in response to the formation of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Operational until 1971, COININTELPRO monitored domestic political organizations, most notably ‘radical’ black activist groups such as The Black Panther Party, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Congress of Racial Equality, but also including organizations and individuals associated with the wider Civil Rights Movement, and other civil rights organizations.
Tactics used are ‘alleged to include discrediting targets through psychological warfare; smearing individuals and groups using forged documents and by planting false reports in the media; harassment; wrongful imprisonment; and illegal violence, including assassination,’ in order to (in the words of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover) ‘expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.’
In 1963 FBI Assistant Director William Sullivan recommended ‘increased coverage of communist influence on the Negro,’ but it clear that his real target was the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
‘In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech. . . . We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.’
In pursuit of this aim (under a program labelled ‘COINTELPRO–BLACK HATE’), the FBI staked out Dr. King, talking photographs, bugging his room, and physically following his movements. Using information from this spying program, the FBI then sent him anonymous letters that tried to blackmail him into suicide, and tried to undermine his marriage by sending carefully edited ‘personal moments he shared with friends and women’ to his wife.
The Black Panther Party was also seen as a particular enemy, and efforts to destroy it ranged from police harassment, raids, and car stops, to inciting violence between street gangs, which led to ‘the killings of four BPP members and numerous beatings and shootings’. In 1969 the FBI provided the intel for a raid on the home of African-American activist and deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the BPP, Fred Hampton, in which he was shot dead.
Not to be left out of the fun, the National Security Agency used projects code-named ‘Shamrock’ and ‘Minaret’ to spy on international and domestic organizations in a program that Senator Frank Church (of the Church Committee) described as ‘certainly appear[ing] to violate section 605 of the Communications Act of 1934 as well as the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.’
Church noted that ‘at the outset, the purpose apparently was only to extract international telegrams relating to certain foreign targets. Later the government began to extract the telegrams of certain U.S. citizen,’ a comment chillingly matched by Senator Walter Mondale’s prescient warning that the NSA ‘could be used by President ‘A’ in the future to spy upon the American people, to chill and interrupt political dissent.’
Recently declassified documents reveal that Martin Luther King was a target of one of these programs (Minaret), and that he was placed on a phone tapping ‘watch list’.
The Church Committee
In the wake of the Watergate scandal a committee was set up chaired by Frank Church to investigate the CIA, FBI, and NSA for their illegal intelligence gathering activities which had been exposed by the affair. The United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (usually referred to as just the Church Committee) heavily criticised the spying agencies and their use of technology in surveillance,
‘In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air. Now, that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know, at the same time, that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left such is the capability to monitor everything—telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.’
The findings led Congress to pass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), aimed at placing safeguards on (US but certainly not any else’s) citizens’ rights to privacy, but intelligence agencies have worked tirelessly ever since to undermine these.
Following the Edward Snowden revelations in June last year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called for a new Church Committee to investigate the overweening domestic surveillance powers of the NSA and other government agencies, and referenced the spying of Martin Luther King in their call to action.
We fully endorse such a call, and feel that Black History Month provides a perfect opportunity to reflect on what mass government surveillance, now backed by technologies unthinkable at the time of the Church Committee and passing of FISA, means for all the freedoms and hard-won civil liberties of all member of society, both now, and going forward into a very uncertain future.
‘If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology.’ Senator Frank Church.