Chris Hayes: "It's not some Orwellian abstraction. It's America's history"
Last night Chris Hayes tried to give his audience some perspective on the fears and concerns of civil libertarians who are mistrustful of the government when they assure us they will not abuse their power. He used the famous example of Martin Luther King.
I'm sure that for some of you that is ancient history (and I have heard a lot from supporters of the program that my mistrust is a function of my addled old age and nostalgia for my youth rather than anything savvy modern people should take seriously.) But Chris Hayes is hardly a senile old woman and yet he makes some excellent points that this ancient observer thinks are worthy of consideration:
We begin tonight with this man, former Alabama governor George Wallace who 50 years ago today made his infamous stand in the schoolhouse door. a principled stand on behalf of evil. in defiance of the united states justice department , governor George Wallace stood outside the University of Alabama personally blocking two black students from enrolling there.
(VIDEO) I stand here today as Governor of this sovereign state and refuse to submit to the illegal use of power by the central government.
Today, 50 years later when we look back on that moment on June 11th, 1963, we can tell very clearly the heroes and the villains. George Wallace was obviously the villain in this story, and Vivian Malone and James Hood, the two students blocked by George Wallace from registering that day, were heroes, along with the rest of the civil rights movement, folks like Martin Luther King Jr., the people who are fighting for integration, they're the heroes. They're the good guys, but the United States government at the time, it was not at all clear. In 1963, President Kennedy, himself, said this of Dr. King.
(AUDIO) The trouble with king is everybody thinks he's our boy. King is so hot these days it's like Marx coming to the white house.
He admitted later he asked the FBI to make an intensive investigation of Martin Luther King. And that on October 10th, 1963, he personally authorized the FBI to begin wiretapping King's phones. The Kennedys were most certainly not alone in these attitudes toward Dr. King in the 1960s, much of the security apparatus of the cold war American state was obsessed with the idea that the civil rights movement was infiltrated by communists, and working to tear down U.S. society from the inside. And no single person captured the fear and paranoia of the security apparatus more than Dr. Martin Luther King.
So faced with what they perceived as a threat, the security state did what all security states do when faced with a perceived threat. They surveilled Dr. King around the clock. They stalked his every move, broke into and bugged his office. They bugged his hotel rooms and they tapped into his phones. The FBI and Jay Edgar Hoover were obsessed with ruining Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1964, after Hoover called King the most "notorious liar in the country" in a press conference, a package was sent to King in the mail, a package the House select committee ultimately traced back to the FBI. Inside this package, one of the most remarkable artifacts in American history was an anonymous letter addressed to Martin Luther King and a copy of an electronic surveillance tape apparently to lend credence to threats of exposure of derogatory personal information made in the letter. We don't know to this day for sure what was on that tape. The heavy speculation throughout the years it was of personal and sexual nature recorded by a device planted in Dr. King's hotel room.
The letter that came with the tape read in part, "you know you are complete fraud and a great liability to all of us negroes. The American public will know you for what you are, an evil abnormal beast. King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation." The committee considered it highly likely that Director Hoover had before the fact knowledge of the action.
So that's a letter encouraging Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to kill himself, sent to King from the FBI. This happened in American history. It's just one example out of many of how the full weight of the surveillance state constructed to fight the cold war was used against the people working for racial equality. It may have been constructed to defeat the Russians and the genuine threat of global communism, but it was deployed on people like Carmichael and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
This is all particularly relevant today. Not just because it's generally good to take heed of the lessons from history, but because of the spy novel-esque mystery that is unfolding in the news right now which involves the uncovering of a massive and sophisticated surveillance apparatus being operated by the United States government. The whereabouts of the 29-year-old at the center of the intrigue, intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, has been unknown since he checked out of a Hong Kong hotel after filming a jaw-dropping interview in which he took credit for leaking classified documents exposing government phone and internet spying tactics and programs.
Since his video confession, he has officially been fired. The consulting firm Booz Allen announcing the firing today saying he worked there for less than three months and earned a salary of $122,000 a year. (Notably is quite a bit less than the 200 grand he claimed to have been making.) The Justice department is reportedly already working on pursuing criminal charges against Snowden which is said to be the first step necessary to force him to return to the U.S. And the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration today charging that the newly released phone record collection being done by the government is illegal. The ACLU is asking the judge to bar the mass collection of domestic phone logs and to order existing records to be purged. Arguing the program, quote, "gives the government a comprehensive record of our associations and public movements, revealing a wealth of detail about our familial, political, professional, religious and intimate associations."
But all of that said, when you look at public opinion, Americans appear at the moment, at least, you may be watching this feel this way, to be fairly tolerant of this kind of surveillance. when you ask as pollsters from the "Washington Post" and Pew did this week if it's more important for the government to investigate terror threats or preserve Americans' privacy. An overwhelming majority, 62% say investigate threats even if it violates our privacy. Those numbers are, well, I think totally understandable because everybody wants the government to catch terrorists, and the lack of privacy seems fairly abstract.
Most Americans probably feel pretty far removed from the days of Jay Edgar Hoover spying on Dr. Martin Luther King and with some good reason. If you ask me, in the abstract, do you think it's okay for the government to be able to access millions of Americans' phone records and internet activity as long as those tools are just for catching terrorists and they're never, ever abused, I would be tempted to say, yes, that's totally okay.
But there's a pretty major sticking point, and that is the as long as it's not abused part. Because history tells us that is not actually a thing -- a nonabused massive government surveillance apparatus. That is not what Dr. Martin Luther King tells us. Frankly, you don't even have to look at history. Just look at the news from the fall of 2008 when a pair of NSA whistleblowers came forward to talk about what was being done with the agency's surveillance tools way back then.
(VIDEO) I would say that after 9/11, particularly with the fact we were listening to satellite phone communications, rather than targeting military entities in the middle east, we were actually listening to a lot of everyday ordinary people who really in many ways had absolutely nothing to do with terrorism. ...
The times when I was told, hey, check this out, there's something really some good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny. Go check it out and it would be some colonel making pillow talk .
And you would listen?
It was there, stored the way you look at songs on your Ipod.
That was our post-9/11 anti- terrorist surveillance state at work just a few years ago. examples of big sweeping surveillance programs misfiring are all over the place. just last month, NBC's Michael Isikoff flagged reports that a special home run security unit was closely monitoring anti-wall street demonstrations including tracking the Facebook pages and websites of the protesters and writing reports on the "potential impact on commercial and financial sector assets in downtown areas" right around the time the U.S. government received the second warning about the radical Islamic ties of alleged Boston marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
When you construct a massive surveillance apparatus, history tells us that it will be brought to bear not just on, quote, "the enemy" but on the people who threaten society's power structure. On whoever exists at the political margins, whether it's Martin Luther King Jr. or some Occupy Boston protesters. It's not some Orwellian abstraction. It's America's history --- and America's recent history ---and left unchecked I fear for America 's future.