On Tuesday, the activists/burglars who stole top secret J. Edgar Hoover-era FBI files including documents about what's known as COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), and subsequently delivered the files to reporters some 43 years ago finally revealed themselves in The New York Times. Their collective emergence coincides with a forthcoming book about the burglary by Betty Medsger.
And right on cue, Snowden supporters took to Twitter in a predictable and misleading effort to compare COINTELPRO and the people who exposed it with the revelations and activities of Edward Snowden.
I'll come back to how off-base the comparisons are, but it's important to understand exactly what was exposed in the FBI documents. COINTELPRO involved the illegal surveillance of activists and other so-called "subversives" without warrants or court oversight. The FBI's activities included eavesdropping and infiltration of civil rights organizations like the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the American Indian Movement, and most infamously the secret wiretapping and bugging of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1971, anti-war activists William C. Haverford, Keith Forsyth, John and Bonnie Raines and Bob Williamson, along with three others, successfully broke into an FBI satellite office in Media, Pennsylvania -- prying open a back door with a crow-bar, and absconded off with stacks of documents, one of which contained the COINTELPRO acronym. After news about the operations were reported in the press, COINTELPRO was discontinued in 1972 and became one of the primary focuses of the 1975 Church Committee hearings on U.S. intelligence operations.
So there it is, greatly condensed (there's so much more to it).
We often forget how vastly different America was, pre-Watergate and pre-Church. It seemed everyone in government was eavesdropping on everyone else -- looking back, it was the wild west of surveillance inside the U.S., with wires and listening devices instead of six-shooters, operating and recording and blackmailing with impunity.
Knowing how the intelligence community so grievously targeted and intimidated American citizens with wiretaps and eavesdropping without cause or court oversight, is there really any meaningful resemblance whatsoever between COINTELPRO and the NSA revelations from Snowden -- other than, of course, the theft of government documents? Well, the usual suspects believe there is.
The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger:
Popular liberal blogger "billmon":
This is a broad and offensive allegation which assumes that, in many cases, Obama voters and "pro-NSA" pundits, including many African-Americans, would condone the surreptitious and warrantless eavesdropping on civil rights leaders and other activists inside the U.S. This also assumes that those who are maintaining an incredulous eye on Snowden and Greenwald are incapable of distinguishing between metadata storage and the unprecedented infiltration and discrediting of MLK and so forth. Such a wild assumption is intellectually dishonest and constitutes a monumentally large straw man.
And, of course, there's Glenn Greenwald:
Oh, the delusions of grandeur.
What Greenwald and his supporters don't get is that there's a very clear distinction between what's illegal/unconstitutional (COINTELPRO) and what's being carefully and cleverly exaggerated to appear equally as illegal/unconstitutional. This blurring of the line between COINTELPRO and the Snowden revelations only serves to diminish the sheer awfulness of COINTELPRO, and it insults those Americans who suffered under it. It's not unlike a foolish, ill-conceived comparison between, say, President Obama and George Zimmerman, or al-Qaida terrorist Anwar Al-Awlaki and Trayvon Martin. Where have we heard that nonsense before?
Indeed, the Snowden documents themselves prove that a handful of illegal, and occasionally inadvertent activities at NSA were caught and weeded out internally by both NSA and FISA oversight. Whether it was LOVEINT (a few rogue NSA analysts spying on ex-spouses) or an NSA operation that was stopped by FISA Judge John Bates (the Bates ruling, by the way, was attained legally by the EFF), these infractions were relatively minor compared with the widespread abuses by intelligence agencies from World War II through the early 1970s.
As desperately as Snowden and Greenwald would like to convince us that metadata collection under the supervision of federal judges, as well as other post-Church, post-FISA, post-FISA Amendments Act layers of regulation and oversight, cumulatively amounts to literally "watching everything we do," it's simply not the truth. But it was for MLK. (It's also worth noting that the COINTELPRO burglars didn't awkwardly and dramatically run off to the (then) Soviet Union, nor were they housed under the protection of a KGB lawyer, as Snowden is at this very moment.)
Perhaps one of these days, NSA or another agency will again overstep its mandate, as it did under the post-9/11 Bush years when the administration allowed NSA to circumvent the FISA Court. When evidence of such wrongdoing arises, those directly involved should ideally be held accountable and the program in question discontinued. Until then, speculating about what could happen, just because it's happened in the past, is nothing more than an exercise in chasing ghosts.
And if there's evidence of unpunished crimes contained within the Snowden documents revealing COINTELPRO-level trespasses against the Constitution, we deserve to know. But no such evidence has been revealed. Until that day comes, let's cut the crap and take a realistic view of the Snowden revelations, rather than amplifying them into something they're clearly not.