Civil Liberties

Edward Snowdens of the Past Reveal Themselves In a Still-Snooped World



With a book just published about the incident, the New York Times revisists the 1971 burglary of an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania—a politically fueled act committed in an age when the Edward Snowdens of the world often had to work with lockpicks and crowbars instead of thumbdrives. The eight burglars made off with a treasure trove of information about the FBI's surveillance of domestic political organizations. They also unearthed the first hints that led to later revelations about COINTELPRO—the federal government's effort, as documented by Reason's own Jesse Walker, to infiltrate and discredit groups deemed subversive or simply inconvenient. All of this might just be thrilling history if Snowden's recent actions hadn't made clear that little changes when it comes to governments spying on their own people.

Mark Mazzetti writes for the Times:

After packing the documents into suitcases, the burglars piled into getaway cars and rendezvoused at a farmhouse to sort through what they had stolen. To their relief, they soon discovered that the bulk of it was hard evidence of the F.B.I.'s spying on political groups. Identifying themselves as the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the F.B.I., the burglars sent select documents to several newspaper reporters. Two weeks after the burglary, Ms. Medsger wrote the first article based on the files, after the Nixon administration tried unsuccessfully to get The Post to return the documents.

Other news organizations that had received the documents, including The New York Times, followed with their own reports.

Ms. Medsger's article cited what was perhaps the most damning document from the cache, a 1970 memorandum that offered a glimpse into Hoover's obsession with snuffing out dissent. The document urged agents to step up their interviews of antiwar activists and members of dissident student groups.

"It will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an F.B.I. agent behind every mailbox," the message from F.B.I. headquarters said. Another document, signed by Hoover himself, revealed widespread F.B.I. surveillance of black student groups on college campuses.

But the document that would have the biggest impact on reining in the F.B.I.'s domestic spying activities was an internal routing slip, dated 1968, bearing a mysterious word: Cointelpro.

Walker details COINTELPRO in an excerpt from his book, the The United States of Paranoia:

Under COINTELPRO, FBI agents infiltrated political groups and spread rumors that loyal members were the real infiltrators. They tried to get targets fired from their jobs, and they tried to break up the targets' marriages. They published deliberately inflammatory literature in the names of the organizations they wanted to discredit, and they drove wedges between groups that might otherwise be allied.

So the federal government wasn't merely spying on groups that disagree with the powers that be—itself a chilling assault on freedom of thought and speech—it actively sought to sabotage opposition. The modern FBI itself confesses that COINTELPRO was "rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging first amendment rights."

But domestic surveillance continues on an expanded scale, we know, in part because of the massive data released by Edward Snowden, and also because of the increased inquiry and scrutiny directed at other government agencies as a result. We've learned that the FBI continues its surveillance activites, expanding its powers (sometimes unilaterally) and shares information with agencies including the NSA. The DEA, in concert with local police agencies, engages in domestic phone surveillance that may dwarf the official spy agency's efforts.

Sen. Rand Paul responded to news of such domestic snooping, writing:

Each new agency scandal or revelation-whether the IRS, DOJ, NSA, or now, the DEA-paints a picture of a domestic and national security apparatus run amuck. Our longstanding tradition of balancing liberty against security is now threatened by an emerging Washington mentality in which no liberty is protected against the greater need for security.

Memories of the Media, Pennsylvania, break-in, and what was learned from the FBI documents seized at that time, remind us that the national security state isn't just here to help. It's not benign. The state spies on its own subjects for its own reasons, and those reasons often involve retaining power. The information it gathers becomes a potent weapon against anybody labeled an enemy, for whatever reason.

Mazzetti of the Times writes that the Media burglars who have come forward "felt a kinship toward Mr. Snowden, whose revelations about N.S.A. spying they see as a bookend to their own disclosures so long ago." That kinship is very real, unfortunately, because the security state has experienced very little in the way of reform between the two sets of revelations.