By Jeff Cohen
I know the issue of political spying – and not just because my lawful, nonviolent activism got me spied on by local, state and federal “intelligence” agencies (whose spy files on me were unearthed through successful lawsuits and partly successful Freedom of Information requests). I also spent a dozen years as a journalist, researcher and ACLU lawyer investigating the spies.
There are four basic truths of political spying worth remembering in light of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s disclosures about phone record and Internet surveillance. These truths were obvious before computerized spying – e.g. when the FBI’s massive 1960s spy program led to harassment and violence against civil rights and antiwar activists – and are more obvious, and perhaps more dangerous, now that digitized information on millions of us can be so easily vacuumed up.
1) False “facts” and assumptions CIRCULATE WILDLY.
2) Political spying RARELY STAYS ON TARGET; spies tend to wander.
3) Political “intelligence” is often the OPPOSITE OF ACTUAL INTELLIGENCE.
4) Big Brother has flourished under BOTH PARTIES.
FALSE FACTS GONE WILD
As a teenager in Detroit, I borrowed my dad’s car to attend totally lawful gatherings sponsored by groups like People Against Racism (PAR) and Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) – while agents of the Michigan State Police “Red Squad” hid outside and diligently recorded license plate numbers. Stacking false assumption upon false assumption, the bumbling spies linked my dad – a non-political businessman – to revolutionary communists. It was totally bogus as to him and me. Meet Sol Cohen, subversive file No. 358-552-619.
We received Sol Cohen’s file in 1983 thanks to a successful First Amendment suit revealing that the “intelligence” unit had accumulated files on 38,000 Michigan residents – including progressive politicians, consumer activists, union leaders – with not one indicted for a crime. (This wasteful surveillance occurred while Detroit’s violent crime rate was soaring.)
What’s worse than all the inaccuracies compiled on these thousands of law-abiding people – the Michigan ACLU found countless examples of guilt by (parking lot) association – is how far they can circulate. My dad’s file showed that spy units in Canada were linking him to PAR and VVAW, two groups he’d never heard of.
Nowadays, thanks to computerized spying, these false facts, suspicions and “connections” can be disseminated further, faster, and longer . . . as in forever. Guilt by association linkages can be amplified. It’s now guilt by algorithm or mathematical formula, says author Christopher Simpson. Operating with our phone records and Internet content, computers can run circles around any Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon champion.
WANDERING OFF TARGET
No matter what group is designated “Public Enemy Number 1” – whether “Communists” in the 1950s/60s or “terrorists” today – most of those surveilled and harassed will not be in the targeted group.
Over the decades, the FBI used the “Communist” pretext to spy on huge numbers of Americans, only a tiny percentage of whom were Communists. Internal documents show that Director J. Edgar Hoover, a racial bigot, unleashed the FBI against civil rights activists after being fully briefed that actual American Communists had shrunk to a tiny number and had virtually no influence on the civil rights movement.
In Los Angeles, I was part of a successful suit against the LAPD intelligence division tasked with preventing “public disorder” – a squad that squandered millions of dollars and voluminous files in the 1970s and 1980s reporting on the activities of such violence-prone rioters as Cesar Chavez, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Susan Sarandon, Jackson Browne, L.A.’s first black mayor and thousands of other nonviolent citizens.
Why do spy agencies so often wander away from their designated “hard” targets to “soft” ones? It’s easier and safer. The FBI devoted far more money and energy to disrupting Martin Luther King Jr. and his nonviolent associates than to the murderous Ku Klux Klan. Today, trying to infiltrate closed, violent groups — Al Qaeda-types, for example – can get you killed; hanging out in American mosques is much safer . . . and you can convince yourself you’re protecting the homeland.
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It was perhaps inevitable that the huge “Counter Terrorism” apparatus set up after 9/11 – Homeland Security, expanded FBI, enriched private security firms (which receive an estimated 70% of the U.S. intelligence budget) – would be used against nonviolent Americans, such as the Occupy movement.
Justification for moving from a few dangerous sharks (actual criminals or terrorists) to lots of non-murderous minnows can often be found in the rhetoric of “aiding and abetting the enemy.” If Bradley Manning can be charged with “aiding the enemy” for leaking evidence of war crimes to the public, is it a big jump for the spies to electronically monitor the 70,000 of us who’ve signed a petition saying that Manning is a hero?
Overly vast surveillance can undermine actual crime-fighting; Glenn Greenwald and others have argued that the NSA’s vacuum operations are less effective against terrorists than targeted suspicion-based surveillance. I saw clearly in the 1980s that the LAPD’s deployment of huge police resources in their obsession to infiltrate dozens of nonviolent progressive groups was a serious distraction from tracking actual criminals. (After our exposures embarrassed the LAPD spy unit, one of its first maneuvers was a name change – almost two decades before the 9/11 attacks, it became the “Anti-Terrorism Division.”)
INTELLIGENCE OFTEN NOT INTELLIGENT
One need only watch Fox News Channel for an hour to see how readily paranoia warps logic, reasoning, and accurate reporting. And paranoia is an occupational hazard among spies, especially top spies like J. Edgar Hoover.
As a junior lawyer on the Southern California ACLU lawsuit that exposed the LAPD’s vast spying, I was continually stunned by the lack of knowledge and intelligence among “Intelligence” officers – and the cluelessness of those making judgments about who was politically suspect and who should be spied on. One officer, for example, concluded that Stevie Wonder was a “socialist” because he performed at an anti-nuclear concert. I remember taking deposition testimony from a police spy whose intelligence report had referred to “Trotskyist protesters.”
Q: Officer, what is a Trotskyist?
A: I do not know.
Q: Do you know if Trotskyists are followers of the teachings of a certain person?
A: I believe they are.
Q: Do you know who it is?
A: No, I don’t.
One LAPD intelligence report about the local law school I attended reveals the standard blend of ignorance, arrogance and paranoia: “The Peoples College of Law and all its disciples and students should be watched with serious consideration. They could impose a serious threat to society.” (Graduates of the school include prominent elected officials, such as the current mayor of Los Angeles.)
With today’s intelligence focus on Islamist terrorists and their alleged supporters, how broad a net is being cast by spies whose understanding of the Islamic world may be no better than domestic spies’ understanding of progressive America? Or no better than the Surveillance State’s biggest supporter in the U.S. Senate?
BIG BROTHER ABETTED BY BOTH DEMOCRATS AND REPUBLICANS
It’s historically sad but true that the FBI’s original wiretaps on Martin Luther King were authorized by Democratic Attorney General Robert Kennedy – based on misleading information from the Bureau (not unlike the deceptions we get from our country’s top spies today). It’s also true that President Lyndon Johnson – seen as “The Civil Rights President” – used intrusive FBI wiretaps and naked political spying to undermine black Mississippians who sought to be seated as delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
Whichever party is in the White House has tended to promote the Surveillance State – even if they were skeptics when the other party held power (watch Joe Biden’s flip-flop on the collection of phone metadata).
Today, with a gusto unseen by previous presidents, Obama has waged war against whistleblowers who’ve warned about Big Brother’s waste or abuse. Obama’s “national security” policies have left at least one neo-con hawk, former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, ecstatic: “Drone strikes. Wiretaps. Gitmo. O is carrying out Bush’s 4th term,” Fleischer tweeted two weeks ago. “Yet he attacked Bush 4 violating Constitution. #hypocrisy.” In a follow-up tweet, Fleischer added: “And just to be clear & so silent liberals understand, I support President O’s anti-terror actions. They’re bi-partisan now.”
The bad news for those concerned about civil liberties is that Watergate-era reforms are often empty shells – like the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court (which rubber stamps almost every request for electronic surveillance) and the intelligence committees of Congress, whether chaired by House Republicans or Senate Democrats like Dianne Feinstein, who was quick to denounce Snowden’s “act of treason.”
The even worse news is that the spies are now propelled by computer power that J. Edgar Hoover would have salivated over.
From inside the belly of Big Brother, Edward Snowden has risked everything to expose some of the latest technological threats to our political and privacy rights. His disclosures have sparked the most intense debate on surveillance and privacy in years. To thank him for his courage, click here.
Jeff Cohen cofounded the online activism group RootsAction.org, and launched the media watch group FAIR in 1986 (partly with settlement funds from the suit against LAPD spying). He is now director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, and author of “Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.”