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August 09, 2013 12:15 PM Remember When the Surveillance State Obsessed Over Civil Rights Leaders?

By Katelyn Fossett


John Lewis during the 1960s

Recently, Georgia Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis compared Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, to figures like Henry David Thoreau and Gandhi for exposing government-condoned injustices and being willing to suffer the consequences for it.

“In keeping with the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence … if you believe something that is not right, something is unjust and you are willing to defy customs, traditions, bad laws, then you have a conscience,” he said. He walked back his statement shortly thereafter, saying he did not agree with the leaker’s actions and that they did not “rise to those” of civil rights leaders, just that Snowden “has a right as an individual to act according to the dictates of his conscience… [and] pay the price for taking that action.”

While I think it’s a bit of a reach to compare Snowden with Gandhi (and apparently Lewis does too), the original statement is important because it prompts us to think about why a civil rights icon would empathize with a surveillance overreach whistleblower - and thus reminds us of the nasty climax of such invasiveness during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

One of the most well-known examples, of course, is the FBI’s almost constant surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his associates, which was conducted in hopes of connecting him with Communism or otherwise discrediting him. President Kennedy signed off on these surveillance plans, which mostly included bugging King’s home and his associates’ phones and offices, with a quiet plea that the agents keep in mind the “delicacy of this particular matter.”

While no ties to Communism were revealed by the snooping, a number of the FBI-planted bugs revealed extra-marital affairs and an off-color joke immediately following Kennedy’s assassination. Reportedly, it was enough to make him a target of FBI Director Hoover’s ridicule, who called King a “degenerate,” among other sneers in FBI documents.

The worst came when the FBI used the recordings to blackmail King, mailing him a letter that threatened “the American public … will know you for what you are.” One common understanding of the letter was that it was written to persuade King to commit suicide.

The scope of the FBI’s civil rights targeting was also the subject of a recent investigative piece by ABC News, which looked at requests from West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, a well-known Ku Klux Klan member, for classified information from the FBI on unnamed civil rights leaders in 1966. When the FBI gave him only publicly available information, Byrd retorted by showing them Xeroxed copies of classified information he had already received from the CIA on the leaders.

The entire exchange highlighted just how pervasive the targeting had become in both the FBI and CIA - and, obviously, that it was common knowledge in political circles.

A random sampling of op-eds and news articles would show that right now, Americans seem to be figuring out just how they feel about a robust surveillance system (of which we don’t quite know the extent because most of the limits are set in private). We don’t understand a lot about it, and we are still reeling from a near-decade-long campaign to make us feel as unsafe as possible in order to fuel support for an irresponsible war and the irresponsible legal manipulations that accompanied it.

For the most part, conversations about the NSA leaks tend to deal with the issues at stake in theoreticals.

But, as Lewis’s comments show, for people who hold some of the worst-case-scenarios of intelligence overreach in more recent memory, the NSA leaks do not stir only theoretical concerns, and in that he acted out of conscience, Snowden is not an ordinary criminal. Lewis’s comparison recalls a time in American history when groups hostile to the status quo enjoyed almost no protection under the Fourth Amendment and unchallenged secrecy covered a disturbing range of government malfeasance.

And if the post-9/11 trend of dismantling surveillance limits continues, especially combined with a tepid response by the American public in the face of continued revelations, we could be headed right back to that time.

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Katelyn Fossett is an intern at the Washington Monthly. Find her on Twitter: @katelynfossett

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