Government Spying and the NSA: COINTELPRO On Steroids

Peter d'Errico
June 14, 2013

The U.S. acknowledgment of massive Internet and telephone spying operations is a surprise only to those who do not remember history.

The Black Panthers and the New Left of the 1960s were spied on by "COINTELPRO," a secret program created by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1956. Originally part of the hunt for "Communists" in America, it soon targeted other groups, including civil rights organizations. The secrecy ended in 1971, when activists  stole documents exposing the program from an FBI field office.

In 1976, a U.S. Senate Committee examined spying by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the National Security Agency (NSA). The Church Committee issued a series of findings and recommended reforms, some of which were put into place. The findings and recommendations continue to be debated in each round of more spying.

In contrast to the way outside activists revealed COINTELPRO, the latest revelations come from insiders: Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, to name two. This raises the specter of insecure security agencies, which has prompted the Obama administration to try to bypass laws protecting "whistle-blowers."

Let's look at some earlier history: The origin of the FBI in 1908 was part of the "Progressive" agenda under President Theodore Roosevelt, with the proclaimed purpose of replacing "politics" with "expertise" in law enforcement. Initially, the Bureau focused on national banking, bankruptcy, naturalization, antitrust, peonage, and land fraud.

"Moral" crimes entered the agenda two years later, when Congress passed the Mann Act ("White Slave Act"), making it a crime to transport women over state lines for "immoral purposes." The deeper impact of this law was to establish the notion that the federal government can intervene when a law-breaker crosses a state border.

"Intelligence" gathering was added to the agenda during the Mexican revolution, with field offices at the international border. World War I was the impetus for further expansion, adding espionage, Selective Service, and sabotage.

"Counterterrorism" made it to the agenda in 1982, the same year that "drug crimes" were added. Both resulted in increased interaction with local, state, and other federal agencies, as well as agencies of other countries.

A "National Security Threat List" was created in 1991, an umbrella term for federal law enforcement activities in "intelligence" and "terrorism" that extended into "economic security." In 1994, FBI Director Louis Freeh explicitly linked this approach to "American foreign policy…[and] national interest."

Combating "Cybercrime" became the catchword for a host of programs and efforts to enhance electronic surveillance in the last decade of the 20th century. In 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act, granting yet further authority to address "terrorism" and setting the stage for the huge increase in surveillance of every-day activities of people around the world, including American citizens.

Government surveillance has expanded with every major crisis. Each time, the expansion is marked by efforts to persuade people that the agency involved is crucial to public safety and well-being. Long-time Director J. Edgar Hoover led this evangelizing in 1925: His report to the Attorney General said, "the real problem of law enforcement is in trying to obtain the cooperation and sympathy of the public." He added that the Bureau "cannot hope to get such cooperation until they themselves merit the respect of the public."

The question today is the same as in 1925: Do surveillance activities by the various federal agencies—FBI, CIA, NSA—merit the respect of the public? If not, why not?

One of the curiosities of the ongoing debates about secrecy, privacy, and freedom is that so much of our lives is already known by others: Our friends, relations, and neighbors freely gossip about us (and we about them); we are known in our communities not only by the things we make public, but by the things that others say or presume about us. There is no "firewall" around our private life. In a sense, this is what we mean by "community": a group of people bound to each other by shared knowledge. "Tribal" life is the paradigm of community: we all know each other, and who we are as individuals is inseparable from who we are as a whole.

Nevertheless, we persist in worrying about—and trying to control—our reputations, what others think about us. The vast reach of so-called "social media" has given rise to a new field: "reputation management." The more we share with others, it seems the more we worry about what they think. It's a vicious circle.

When we discover government agencies spying on us, our worry becomes greater: we find that our lives are not being shared, they are being invaded. There's a significant difference, because spying is a one-way street: There's no mutuality, like the shared knowledge of a community. It's the opposite of shared—it's totalitarian. It doesn't aim to disperse knowledge, as in a community, but to monopolize it—and keep it secret for its own purposes.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970. Taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. Consulting attorney on indigenous issues