Respectfully submitted by Lawrence E. Rafferty (rafflaw)-Guest Blogger
In recent weeks and months, we have all heard and read the many articles and stories about the whistleblower Edward Snowden and his disclosure of enormous amounts of NSA “secrets”. His disclosures have exposed what the NSA was really doing, which is spying on practically every American’s metadata online and on the phone. His disclosures have also put on display what happens to a “whistleblower” in this day and age. He has been forced to flee his home country and is currently living in exile in Russia.
Just what were his crimes that made him fear for his safety and raised doubts as to whether he would ever be given a fair trial for his alleged disclosures of secret material and programs? He did what any good American should do and that is expose illegal or immoral governmental activities and allow the American public to decide whether its government is acting legally and fairly. Didn’t he?
You may think his disclosures were an unprecedented example of a citizen uncovering and disclosing government programs designed to, at best, skirt the line of legality by spying on Americans, but you would be wrong.
Over 40 years ago, a group of anti-Vietnam war activists did what Snowden did and actually escaped any notoriety or criminal prosecution in order to show that the FBI was involved in a then unprecedented level of spying on Americans involved in the anti-war and civil rights movements.
“In 1971, as opposition to the Vietnam War peaked and civil unrest rattled America, activists knew they were being watched, infiltrated and undermined by the FBI. But they didn’t know the extent of the agency’s efforts, nor how far J. Edgar Hoover’s agents would go to suppress dissent.
That would change one night in March, when eight men and women broke into an FBI satellite office in Media, PA. They absconded with nearly every piece of paper they could find, sifted through it and anonymously sent various documents detailing the agency’s spying and dirty tricks to major media organizations. While some outlets were initially reticent about reporting on the documents, the revelations would ultimately unleash a torrent of investigative reporting, shining a light on Hoover’s efforts to destroy Martin Luther King and the agency’s now-notorious COINTELPRO program.” Nation of Change
These “burglars” not only escaped with a treasure trove of FBI documents that proved the agency was involved in improper spying on Dr. Martin Luther King, and most, if not all of the anti-war organizations of the day. They also escaped prosecution and they have just recently gone on record to explain what they did and why they did it.
The 5 of the 8 activists/whistleblowers who were interviewed prior to the release of a book described just how they pulled the covers off the secret and seamy side of the FBI and eventually the program mentioned above, COINTELPRO. This “heist” took a lot of planning and the activists planning it were taking a big risk. They all knew the reputation J. Edgar Hoover had and what could happen to anyone who attacked his agency and programs.
‘“When you talked to people outside the movement about what the F.B.I. was doing, nobody wanted to believe it,” said one of the burglars, Keith Forsyth, who is finally going public about his involvement. “ There was only one way to convince people that it was true, and that was to get it in their handwriting.” ‘
Mr. Forsyth, now 63, and other members of the group can no longer be prosecuted for what happened that night, and they agreed to be interviewed before the release this week of a book written by one of the first journalists to receive the stolen documents. The author, Betty Medsger, a former reporter for The Washington Post, spent years sifting through the F.B.I.’s voluminous case file on the episode and persuaded five of the eight men and women who participated in the break-in to end their silence.
Unlike Mr. Snowden, who downloaded hundreds of thousands of digital N.S.A. files onto computer hard drives, the Media burglars did their work the 20th-century way: they cased the F.B.I. office for months, wore gloves as they packed the papers into suitcases, and loaded the suitcases into getaway cars. When the operation was over, they dispersed.” New York Times
It is an amazing story that the FBI and its reported 200 agents that were investigating the burglary, were unable to prosecute any of the whistleblowers. The documents, once disclosed, were instrumental in shining a bright light on the FBI’s illegal activities. The documents also provided the first glimpse of the COINTELPRO program.
The COINTELPRO program had been in place since 1956 and was designed to spy on and disrupt civil rights groups and later, anti-war activists and organizations. ‘“It wasn’t just spying on Americans,” said Loch K. Johnson, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia who was an aide to Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho. “The intent of Cointelpro was to destroy lives and ruin reputations.”‘
Senator Church’s investigation in the mid-1970s revealed still more about the extent of decades of F.B.I. abuses, and led to greater congressional oversight of the F.B.I. and other American intelligence agencies. The Church Committee’s final report about the domestic surveillance was blunt. “Too many people have been spied upon by too many government agencies, and too much information has been collected,” it read.” New York Times
The Church Committee’s report can be found here. Without these brave activists and the documents that they disclosed, the Church Committee may not have even been formed to investigate the FBI and its illegal activities. When one reads about what these people did in 1971, do you think we, as a country, have learned anything about how important our privacy is and how important legitimate whistleblowers are to our country?
It does seem obvious that these 8 brave activists improved our country and helped protect our privacy rights, at least for a short while. Mr. Snowden gave us a stark reminder that we have tumbled back to the J. Edgar Hoover days. What do we need to do as a country to make sure our privacy is protected and that our intelligence and law enforcement agencies do not continue to make a mockery of the Fourth Amendment?
Should we consider these activists in 1971 as heroes and is it right that our government considers Edward Snowden to be a traitor? I submit that 40 years ago, these 8 people made a difficult decision that improved our country and brought some sunshine upon the programs of the FBI. Will Snowden’s revelations really bring about the changes and improvements that followed the break-in in 1971? Or will the intelligence agencies succeed in hiding behind the veil of national security and continue to gather data on all of us? I am not too optimistic about our current situation, but what do you think?