Privacy SOS

When President Obama speaks on surveillance tomorrow, remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Tomorrow, President Barack Obama will address the nation on the NSA/FBI dragnet surveillance programs, which were revealed by former Booz Allen contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Since the debate over the largely Bush-era surveillance programs began in earnest, back in June 2013, NSA apologists and members of the regime have repeated over and over again that “You don’t have anything to worry about if you’re not doing anything wrong.” Even if your communications or associational information are collected and data mined by the government’s secretive spy agencies, they say, no harm will come to you unless you’re a criminal or a terrorist.

Apart from the fact that invasive warrantless electronic surveillance should be illegal in the United States whether it’s done to criminals or non-criminals, such an assertion can only be accepted if we ignore events in our own recent history. Countless examples from both foreign governments as well as our own show that when allowed to fester secretly in the shadowy corners of government, unaccountable spy programs nearly always attack the interests of millions of law abiding people. When you hear people say that they aren't worried about government spying because their lives aren't very interesting, remind them that activists who fight for clean water and to end mass incarceration are fighting for them, too.

An injury to one (social justice activist) is an injury to all

When J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI illegally wiretapped Martin Luther King, Jr., the nation’s most powerful law enforcement agency wasn’t just attacking a great civil rights hero. It was attacking all black Americans, and opposing liberty, equality, and justice for all. The US government's illegal, political surveillance against civil rights and antiwar activists hurt the entire country and even the world, by giving aid to racist Jim Crow apartheid, and prolonging the disastrous war against Vietnam. Therefore anyone concerned about social justice and equality should be concerned about secret surveillance regimes, and unaccountable intelligence agencies.

Historian of the FBI Tim Weiner spoke with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman about the FBI’s operations against MLK:

AMY GOODMAN: [T]alk about what [Hoover] did. Talk about the level of surveillance that he subjected Dr. King to and harassment.

TIM WEINER: With the approval, in writing, of the attorney general of the United States, Robert F. Kennedy, Hoover began bugging, wiretapping and surveying Dr. King, putting bugs in his hotel rooms, his private home, the Southern Christian Leadership Council offices, and very quickly came up with sex tapes of Dr. King having intercourse with women who were not his wife. He spread this dirt around as furiously as he could in the weeks leading up to Dr. King’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. No newspaper would touch it. It was too filthy.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what he did to King himself, in sending him the tapes.

TIM WEINER: One of his most trusted lieutenants, a guy named Bill Sullivan, nicknamed Crazy Billy for a good reason, was head of FBI intelligence. He put together a composite of these tapes and a poison pen letter to Dr. King, suggesting essentially that he commit suicide rather than be exposed, sent it to his home. His wife opened it. Dr. King knew that he was under this level of surveillance, and he chose to keep on doing what he was doing, crusading for civil rights in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: And he got that. That was sent to his home just before he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

TIM WEINER: His wife opened the package. That’s right.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Did the original FBI report, though, that investigated King find that in fact he wasn’t a threat, and Hoover ignored that?

TIM WEINER: No, not exactly. To understand the mind of J. Edgar Hoover, you have to understand that this man is the father of anti-communism in America, the father of the national surveillance state. Every fingerprint that’s on file, every camera that looks over your shoulder as you’re walking down the street in New York or London, every time you go through an airport and they get your biometric data from your eyeballs, that is the world that J. Edgar Hoover invented. He’s been dead for 40 years now. We live in his shadow every day.

As Weiner says, not much has changed in the past forty years. Hoover is dead, but his legacy lives on, only now it's super-charged with high tech surveillance equipment, data mining, and super computers. Chillingly, most of what the FBI learned about MLK by listening to wiretaps in his private home and office could be discerned simply by looking at metadata from his and his associates' cell phones, if they were alive today.

So what hope do we have to change this sordid state of affairs? As a threshold matter, we cannot count on presidents to take away their own powers.

While Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t intimidated by the FBI’s oppressive tactics, we can’t say the same about at least two US presidents, namely Nixon and Kennedy. Like mostly every US president who came before him, President Obama probably won’t challenge the authority of the spy agencies, either.

When the President delivers his speech tomorrow on the state of surveillance in the USA, he likely won’t stand up to the NSA and the FBI. Nor will he do so the day after that. Winning this fight will be up to us, the people.

If we want to live in a country in which we can use all the peaceful means at our disposal to fight for our children's future, we must put an end to the unaccountable surveillance state. Our ability to combat climate change, economic inequality, and the racist drug war depend on our right to dissent, free from political surveillance and oppressive counterintelligence operations by organizations like the FBI.

Combating illegal spying isn't just about the right to be left alone so that we can masturbate in peace, although we should have that right, too. More than anything, we must reject these dragnet spying programs and the arrogance of the officials who try to ram them down our throats because democracy and total surveillance are fundamentally incompatible.

If you start to forget that when you hear President Obama's soaring rhetoric tomorrow, remember Dr. King and Mr. Hoover.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.