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Aryeh Neier on Spying on Americans

In the New York Review of Books, Aryeh Neir writes about the history of spying on Americans.  While she acknowledges that it does not appear that any current NSA activities have had an improper political purpose, she argues that history offers some cautionary notes nonetheless:

But it was during the Vietnam War that political surveillance in the United States reached its peak. Under Presidents Lyndon Johnson and, to an even greater extent, Richard Nixon, there was a systematic effort by various agencies, including the United States Army, to gather information on those involved in anti-war protests. Millions of Americans took part in such protests and the federal government—as well as many state and local agencies—gathered enormous amounts of information on them.  .  .  .

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The NSA’s surveillance practices that have been revealed in recent weeks are fundamentally different. They do not involve efforts to monitor the activities of individuals on the basis of their affiliations with certain organizations or causes. Rather, they attempt to identify the targets for surveillance through patterns of electronic behavior that arouse the government’s suspicion. Yet these new forms of surveillance, over time, may lead in the same direction. Those identified in this way may be excluded from certain benefits or opportunities on the basis of having been identified for engaging in activities that are legitimate. If that were to happen, they are unlikely ever to find out that they have been blocked on such grounds.

There is a further danger. Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI operated a program known as COINTELPRO, for Counter Intelligence Program. Its purpose was to interfere with the activities of the organizations and individuals who were its targets or, in the words of long-time FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize” them. The first target was the Communist Party of the United States, but subsequent targets ranged from the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organizations espousing women’s rights to right wing organizations such as the National States Rights Party.

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COINTELPRO was eventually halted by J. Edgar Hoover after activists broke into a small FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971, and released stolen documents about the program to the press. The lesson of COINTELPRO is that any government agency that is able to gather information through political surveillance will be tempted to use that information. After a time, the passive accumulation of data may seem insufficient and it may be used aggressively. This may take place long after the information is initially collected and may involve officials who had nothing to do with the original decision to engage in surveillance.

Read it all here.

Charles A. Blanchard
General Counsel
United States Air Force