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Why Surveillance Is a Big Deal

Dick Flacks
June 13, 2013

The FBI started tracking me when I was 10 years old. I was a subject of their surveillance for decades after — surveillance that included phone tapping, undercover informants and the collection of all kinds of information about my activities, whereabouts, associations. In 1968, J. Edgar Hoover authorized the sending of a letter, signed by a “concerned alumnus,” detailing information from FBI files with the expressed intent of having me fired from my faculty position at the University of Chicago.

I had come to the attention of the FBI as a child because my parents sent me to a leftwing children’s camp; presumably everyone attending that camp was somehow identified and had a file with the FBI. In the years after, the FBI periodically questioned my landlords and neighbors and school officials about my whereabouts — presumably because I was a child with a suspect parentage. Later, I did enough to warrant more aggressive surveillance — having helped found and lead the Students for a Democratic Society and, in other ways, opposed the government’s war policies. I learned about all this in the mid-seventies because of the initiatives of the Senate’s Church Committee — established in the wake of Watergate, when concern about FBI and other government illegal surveillance went mainstream.

A history of the USA should be written from the angle of how government and private surveillance of political dissenters has evolved, and how such practices have affected the political and cultural life of the society. The FBI — its early staff and methods and files — derived from the Pinkerton Company, a private spy agency used by corporations to destroy labor agitation and action. Once established as a federal agency, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had as its main preoccupation the expansion of its budget and hence its physical capability to conduct surveillance. Hoover sold the FBI for its crime-fighting achievements, which included all kinds of technical capacity to track down criminals and develop the evidence to convict them. Its power was greatly enhanced, however, when FDR authorized the FBI to undertake surveillance of both Nazis and Communists prior to the advent of World War II.

In the postwar years, the FBI developed an army of undercover agents and much technical capacity for penetrating the Communist Party and other groups deemed subversive by the attorney general, and so a list of such organizations was developed. Congress passed laws authorizing the establishment of lists of people to be rounded up and incarcerated in the event of a national emergency. Harry Truman established a “loyalty” program that authorized surveillance of all federal employees. John and Bobby Kennedy authorized an intensive surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., which included phone taps, bugging of hotel rooms, and other eavesdropping.

Hoover routinely used surveillance of presidents and other public figures to gather information that could use to compel them to enhance his power. The Kennedy brothers undoubtedly authorized the disgraceful treatment of King because of Hoover’s blackmail.

LBJ didn’t need to be blackmailed to authorize Hoover to undertake draconian surveillance of the social movements of the sixties — the resulting COINTELPRO quickly became a framework for illegal surveillance and direct government attack on organizations and individuals (such as myself) without any due process. Nixon planned even more draconian measures, and established his own in-house surveillance team aimed at Ted Kennedy, the Democratic Party and Daniel Ellsberg. Whistleblowers in the Watergate episode, coupled with congressional investigation, exposed a lot of this. The theft of thousands of FBI files by still-unknown persons during that period added much to public knowledge about the secret machinations of the FBI.

In the 1970s, the Freedom of information Act and a new regulatory regime established at the FBI were among the measures that blunted the growing edges of government surveillance of American citizens. But the expansionary drive of the national security/surveillance state was revitalized by 9/11. Now we know a bit more than we did, because of Edward Snowden’s gutsy moves, about how far this drive has taken us.

We can learn from the past — if we are aware of it — that the issue isn’t “privacy.” Everybody knows that most of us have traded a lot of privacy for the magical communicative ease provided by digital technologies. Indeed, “privacy” sounds like a luxury these days — you can get more of it the more money you have. Nor is the issue “security” — no one has been able to explain how the amassing of vast data bases of the electronic behavior of hundreds of millions of people is essential for identifying and capturing “terrorists.” Indeed, those who are supposed to oversee these databases have been denying or failing to make clear the full scope of what they are collecting. if we are supposed to be much safer because of all this surveillance, why not give a clue about how that is the case?

The issue instead is what Snowden says it is: The existence of these capabilities — and the storage of these data — give enormous power to be used, not onliy against “the bad guys” but against anyone or any group that those with access to the data might at some point want to punish or control. That is what Hoover was doing with his apparatus and files, and what Nixon began to do when he sent the “plumbers” into private offices of his “enemies,” among many examples of abuse that have helped shape our history. The growth of the surveillance state undermines the capacity to initiate and build social movements — especially ones that might threaten entrenched power. That’s not a question of “privacy.”

President Obama, we might have imagined, would see and know all this. That he has made his own devil’s bargains (less reprehensible I believe than those made by his liberal predecessors) is a measure of the political power of the national security apparatus. But when the president tells us that congress has authorized what has been going on — and when Senator Diane Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, agrees, the subtext of this is obvious: it is up to Congress to do what it did forty years ago, set up a committee that will have as its aim the public examination of the intelligence/surveillance apparatus so that we can actually have a public debate (which Obama has called for) about how to control it. Why did Jefferson (or whoever) declare that: ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”? It’s exactly because of times like these.

Dick Flacks, a Jewish Currents contributing writer, is emeritus professor of sociology at University of California, Santa Barbara. His many writings on U.S. social movements include Making History: The American Left and the American Mind. He hosts a weekly radio show, “Culture of Protest,” aired on Thursdays, 6-7 P.M. EST, at KCSB, and is coauthor with Rob Rosenthal of Playing for Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements (Routledge, 2010).