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Most of us have heard about the activists who admitted burglarizing the FBI office in Media, PA in March 1971. The internal documents they leaked to the press revealed COINTELPRO, the FBI’s illegal multi-prong campaign to destroy the anti-war and civil rights movements in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and led to significant civil liberties victories. Many Internet postings have focused on the similarities between COINTELPRO and the NSA spying forty years later, and between the liberators of the Media FBI documents and today’s whistleblowers, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.

I find the differences between the two situations just as interesting.

COINTELPRO (an acronym for COunter INTELligence PROgram) was designed to undermine the effectiveness of, and in some cases assassinate, activists who were struggling to bring about basic changes in our foreign and domestic policies. The FBI had specific targets, including the Black Panthers, CORE and other Civil Rights organizations, Puerto Rican Nationalists, the American Indian Movement, SDS and the Weathermen. Even though the project was interrupted, COINTELPRO played a powerful role in undermining progressive movements of the late 1960’s and 1970’s.

In contrast, the National Security Administration appears to be collecting massive amounts of data; they want to know everything about everybody. This government spying is ubiquitous and indiscriminate, even sometimes ludicrous. I got a kick out of the stories last month about a mysterious task force of federal anti-terrorist agents who searched a Long Island family’s home after the husband and wife conducted internet searches for backpacks and pressure cookers and their teen-aged son researched the Boston Marathon bombing.

You could describe the FBI tactics as authoritarian (enforcing strict obedience to the government at the expense of personal freedom) and the NSA’s as totalitarian (centralized and dictatorial, requiring complete subservience to the state). I worry that the repeated assaults on progressive dissent from the Red Scare of the 1950’s, to COINTELPRO, and the draconian post 9/11 laws, have finally succeeded in disempowering the activist bulwarks against assaults on our civil liberties. In this manner the earlier authoritarian attacks may have set the stage for our current government’s totalitarian foray, leaving a pacified and frightened population, willing to accept today’s global surveillance in the name of security.

Many commentators have concluded that the problem with these NSA tactics is that they invade our privacy and sweep up harmless innocents. Such analysis reminds me of “Good Night and Good Luck,” the film about Edward R. Murrow during the McCarthy period. The film’s focus on the harm caused to non-communists by McCarthy’s wild accusations might have left viewers wondering if the Red Scare would have been acceptable if its attacks had been limited to real communists.

While the danger posed by blanket surveillance is real and must be resisted, I worry most about targeted authoritarian attacks against those working to shift the balance of power and change government policies. What is most dangerous about both COINTELPRO and the NSA’s spying is not that they destroy our privacy and ensnare the innocent, but rather that they target political dissidents who are essential to maintaining the rich fabric of our freedoms.  Read More 
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