Since the scandal over broad domestic surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency broke last week, it has been reported that sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have skyrocketed. This begs an obvious question: Who is buying these books?
Is it a public that wishes to ponder the implications of a steadily expanding government surveillance apparatus?
Or has the dystopian tome simply become the book of standard operating procedures for the U.S. intelligence community?
The revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden that the NSA is regularly logging almost all call records and internet activity within the United States are alarming, but should not be surprising to anyone with a cursory knowledge of the institution’s history.
The NSA has been engaged in illegal domestic surveillance since it was founded in 1952. At that time it inherited as its birthright Project SHAMROCK, later renamed Project MINARET, which had the task of intercepting telegrams and telegraphs.
The programs generated watch lists with the names of thousands of American citizens on them, though it remains unclear why their names were listed.
As telegraphs and telegrams fell into disuse, the NSA developed the ECHELON program which probably still intercepts satellite communications, telephone calls and microwave transmissions.
In one incident reported by NSA whistleblower Mike Frost, a mother’s name was added to a watchlist after she said in a phone call that her son had “bombed” in a school play. The call was flagged by ECHELON and rubber stamped by an NSA analyst, according to Frost, who indicated that this was not a lone incident but a recurrent problem.
As the Internet boom took off, the NSA began a series of data interception programs – many of which ended in abject failure. These included Project Trailblazer, Project Stellar Wind and Project Turbulence. Each of these was aimed at gathering domestic, along with foreign, intelligence. The existence of each has been leaked repeatedly over the last decade or so, and so should be news to no one.
Even with the repeated revelations that a veritable alphabet soup of federal agencies and programs have their eyes trained on Americans’ private communications, the public reaction has thus far been shockingly muted.
Some appear ready to trust the intelligence community with these over-broad surveillance powers, sure that they will not be abused. Maintaining that attitude requires a willful blindness toward the track record of the intelligence community.
From the early 1950s though the early 1970s, for example, the FBI did not function primarily as a law enforcement agency, becoming instead something like a secret or political police force lead by one of the most powerful men in American history: J. Edgar Hoover.
In particular, we would do well to keep in mind the intelligence community’s many-decades history of clandestine efforts to quash political dissent, mostly under the aegis of FBI’s Counterintelligence Program codenamed COINTELPRO.
Agents engaged in the COINTELPRO program broke federal laws reflexively – opening mail, committing “black bag jobs” (illegal break-ins), installing warrantless bugs and wiretaps – with total impunity.
Agents often gathered evidence, not of illegal or revolutionary activity, but of personally embarrassing activity that could be used to obtain the silence of those fighting for social and political change through blackmail.
The sordid history of this program included poisoned pen letters sent to Martin Luther King, Jr. threatening to expose a love affair – the FBI had bugged King’s hotel room – and apparently encouraging him to commit suicide. Hoover believed, and remained convinced until his dying day, that King was a communist agent.
Also on Hoover’s list of suspected communist plants – and subjects of regular surveillance, break-ins and blackmail attempts – were the ACLU, Students for a Democratic Society, the NAACP and those protesting the war against Vietnam. Hoover also, often at presidential request, maintained surveillance of journalists.
Many of these abuses only came to light after lengthy congressional investigations led by Senator Frank Church. The recent revelations leave no doubt that the time has come for another Church Commission, which is only likely to happen if legislators receive sufficient pressure from their constituents.
The only difference between the national security state we currently live in and an overt police state are the moral and political judgments made by those in charge of the executive branch – much too thin a barrier. Things could get much worse very quickly, given the right conditions.
Where things go from here is mostly up to us. We live in a democratic republic with unprecedented political freedoms. If we do not fight against the encroaching power of the national security state, we will be responsible for the consequences.