Column: Snooping, past and present
For us aging Vietnam War protesters, the secret domestic surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden, a young former CIA employee and National Security Agency contractor, is like a bad flashback.
In 1968, Lyndon Johnson demanded that something be done to curb the demonstrations that were erupting on college campuses. They had begun as war protests but had broadened to include social issues, especially civil rights. The president believed the demonstrations were part of an organized effort to destabilize the government, and the gloves came off.
It wasn’t until 1974 that Seymour Hersh, reporting for The New York Times, revealed that the CIA had been conducting a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation against the anti-war movement and other dissident groups.
The agency was keeping about 10,000 American citizens under surveillance, using such crude tools as intercepting mail, burglary and wiretaps that had to be placed by hand on home phones and in phone booths.
They were bugging hotel rooms for evidence of infidelity, and there were rumors of mind-control experiments and secret detentions. These weapons were used against suspected communists but also against domestic protesters.
Not long before, the existence of President Richard Nixon’s enemies list came to light in The Washington Post. (You will notice a pattern here in the role of the press in revealing the government’s covert actions against its own citizens.)
The list included everybody from entertainers to the National Education Association, and the IRS was used as a tool against some of them. Members of Nixon’s re-election campaign also tried to bug the Democratic National Headquarters offices in the Watergate Hotel, and we all know how that story ended.
In 1975, Idaho Sen. Frank Church began an investigation into the National Security Agency , and he didn’t like what he saw. The agency was supposed to track foreign threats, but he feared what would happen if it ever turned its enormous listening powers on the American people.
“(Bugging technology) at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “I know the capacity is there to make tyranny total in America.”
Former Vice President Dick Cheney was Gerald Ford’s chief of staff when Mr. Ford took over the presidency from the disgraced Nixon, and he watched as the office of the president was, in his view, emasculated by reform. When he became George Bush’s alter-ego, he was determined to reverse that.
Within days of 9/11, Bush authorized a warrantless domestic surveillance proposal presented to him by Cheney, and the secret domestic spying began again. But it was later revealed that the NSA was already looking at bank transfers, credit card transactions and telephone records.
When the program came to light in 2006, there was a hue and cry and public hearings. After all, Congress had rejected a similar Pentagon plan in 2003 because it viewed it as too broad an intrusion into Americans’ lives.
Former top CIA official John E. McLaughlin said at the time, “This wasn’t a huge drift net hanging over Detroit or Florida or California, scooping up information. So the whole idea that this was the NSA pawing through great volumes of information about Americans is not right.”
Early polling suggests that Americans are not alarmed to learn from the documents leaked by the 29-year-old computer technician the extent of government surveillance on private citizens. Most, it seems, feel they have nothing to hide and are grateful that such surveillance may have prevented (or may yet prevent) a terrorist attack.
I guess you have to be an aging hippie to remember that a similar case was made 40 years ago — that the student demonstrators and the Black Panthers and the odd leftover Communist sympathizers presented a real threat to the country.
And if you weren’t a member of one of those groups, you probably wouldn’t have been outraged then, either. After all, it wasn’t you they were snooping on.
The problem is that now, it is you. And me, and my aging hippie friends and the libertarian husband of my best friend and my daughter-in-law the lacrosse coach — who happens to be married to a Marine helicopter pilot with all sorts of clearances.
Our phone records, our spending habits, our travel. The government, through the NSA, has taken it upon itself to gather all this information about its citizens.
Make whatever case you want about the critical balance between personal privacy and national security and the need for secrecy if our counter-terrorism efforts are to be successful.
Some of us have heard it all before. We didn’t buy it then. And we don’t now.
Susan Reimer is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.