Government officials have always assured us that their spying methods are only used against terrorists and other targets that could threaten the U.S.’s national security. They tell us privacy boundaries will be respected and innocent citizens will be protected.
Government officials once said that National Security Agency surveillance in no way collected the private data of American citizens. Thanks to Edward Snowden, in 2013 we learned that the U.S. government was collecting everyone’s information en masse. Government promised that the 2001 Patriot Act (passed after 9/11) would only be used to target Islamic terrorists. Today, it is used more to fight the war on drugs and other criminal activities that have little to no connection to terrorism.
In 2018, the FBI finally admitted it had spied on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Just this week, a new report showed that the NSA was still spying on all of us with few to no restrictions.
This kind of abuse is nothing new. In the mid-20th century, the NSA and FBI would spy without a warrant on suspected “domestic enemies” of the U.S.
Among those “enemies?” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Yes, as we celebrate Black History Month, there was a time when the most cherished hero of the 1960s civil rights struggle was viewed by our government not as a champion of racial equality but the “most dangerous Negro of the future of this nation,” as the FBI called him.
In 2017, the ACLU’s Noa Yachot gave a synopsis of U.S. surveillance of King, and how they used the Communist threat as an excuse to spy on citizens:
In 1956, (FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover) approved arguably the FBI’s most infamous and lawless program, known as COINTELPRO. The program targeted a diverse array of activists, inflating a Communist threat to justify the agency’s dirty tactics. Most famous among the FBI’s targets was Martin Luther King, Jr., who the agency stalked through wiretaps, bugs, spies, and informants, collecting embarrassing information about his sex life and possibly even urging him to commit suicide. Hoover personally spearheaded this harassment campaign on the grounds that King was a Communist who posed a particularly “dangerous” threat to “national security.”
The FBI tracked King’s every move, believing he was part of a communist conspiracy. Government officials deemed him a threat.
When the state can categorize you as being part of a group it considers a threat, real or imagined, the latter being the case concerning King, that’s all the justification the government needs to ignore your constitutional rights. The NSA and FBI expanded the threat of communism to include King.
Conservatives spent most of the last decade worrying about President Barack Obama’s power to target political opponents, whether Tea Party activists or journalists. Later, many Americans worried about that same kind of power in the hands of President Donald Trump. Today, again, that power is being used by the Biden administration. Remember when the Department of Justice and FBI labeled school parents domestic terrorists just a few months ago for the high crime of showing up at school board meetings and advocating for their children?
This is worrisome. That King was once targeted is a stark reminder of the dangerous nature of unrestrained state power. But what about other innocent citizens less famous than King? What about Brandon Mayfield, the Oregon attorney who was surveilled without a warrant under the Patriot Act, falsely linked with terrorism and arrested and held without charge? What about Hooshang Amirahmadi, a Muslim American Rutgers professor who was surveilled by the NSA due to his religious beliefs?
These are just two victims. What about the billions of others?
Except for libertarian outliers in the Republican Party like Sen. Rand Paul or Reps. Thomas Massie and Nancy Mace, or progressive civil libertarians like Sen. Ron Wyden, don’t expect most in either major party to raise the issues of privacy protections in Congress.
Expect for the intelligence community to continue to assure that the government would never undermine the Constitution and that they will only go after the bad guys.
The problem is – as is always the problem – who, exactly, will be included in the category of “bad guys?” One day, it could be me. It could be you.
Once upon a time, it was Martin Luther King, Jr., too.