OXFORD, Miss. – They wanted to know about your phone calls, your conversations, your meetings with others, your political leanings, your opinions, your friends, your confidantes, your extracurricular activities, your religious beliefs, your sexual habits.
Armed with such information, they knew how to deal with you if they considered you a troublemaker. At the least, they could make sure the whole world knew your every secret. Who were they? In Mississippi between 1956 and 1977, they were the spies working for the state Sovereignty Commission, the taxpayer-funded, segregationist agency that targeted civil rights activists and sympathizers.
In East Germany during the Cold War, they were the spies with the Stasi, the secret security agency that compiled 6.5 million files on one out of every three of East Germany’s 16 million citizens, enough files to fill 120 miles of shelves.
Today they are the employees of the National Security Agency and its contractors, and they not only spy on US citizens but even the leaders of foreign countries. Among their files are the conversations German Chancellor Angela Merkel had on her cell phone.
Former President Jimmy Carter says he communicates with foreign leaders via snail mail because he believes the NSA may be snooping into his e-mail account. Since when can a federal agency violate the Fourth Amendment constitutional rights against “unreasonable searches and seizures” of a former president?
Why do we know these things? Thank Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower now under the protection of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin in Russia. Snowden’s leaks to The Guardian and Washington Post won Pulitzer Prizes for those news organizations in April.
Mississippians and Southerners in general should appreciate the importance of North Carolina-native Snowden’s actions, the topic of a recent panel discussion at the University of Mississippi that included me as a panelist along with former FBI agent and ACLU senior counsel Mike German, now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, and Ole Miss School of Law Senior Associate Dean Matthew Hall. Ole Miss Honors College Dean Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales was moderator.
Former top NSA executive Bill Binney, the creator of the agency’s surveillance program, says widespread government spying on regular citizens has turned the United States into a police state. Many of the NSA’s files go directly to law enforcement agencies to assist them in gathering information — without warrants — that can be used in legal cases against citizens, he says.
Is this why the United States has become the world’s largest gulag, accounting for 25% of the globe’s incarcerated population? One out of every four adult Americans now has a police record. Louisiana and Mississippi lead the nation in putting people behind bars.
In the Ole Miss panel discussion, Matthew Hall argued that Snowden is a villain because he became a fugitive after leaking the NSA files, rather than staying here to face the music like Daniel Ellsberg after leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
That argument fails to consider what has become of post-9/11 America. Bradley Manning, the US Army private whose funneling of government documents to WikiLeaks exposed the extent of civilian casualties from US attacks in Afghanistan as well as the failure of US counterinsurgency programs there, spent nearly a year in solitary confinement before his trial. United Nations investigator Juan Mendez told The Guardian in England that Manning’s treatment was “cruel, inhuman and degrading … torture.”
No state came closer than Mississippi to becoming a “police state” in the 1960s, and it was a model for much of the rest of the racist South. It investigated, intimidated and threatened anyone challenging the status quo. It interfered with murder cases against white supremacists, let loose police bullies on dissidents, and compromised many of the journalists who should have been exposing its evils. Mississippians can see it all for themselves in the more than 138,000 pages of Sovereignty Commission documents that were ultimately released.
In the wake of the NSA scandal, a wavering President Obama has both defended the agency and called for greater oversight of its powers. Snowden remains a fugitive with more than a few politicians still calling for his head. Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley, will spend much of the rest of her life in prison. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is a wanted man whom US officials would love to see behind bars.
Memory fades across much of the world of the days when the FBI watched Martin Luther King Jr.’s every step, bugging his phone and photographing his whereabouts in the hope of catching him in a compromising position that would take him out forever and end his threat to the powers that be. Even the FBI itself now admits on its web site that its disgraced COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) spy network of the 1960s “was rightfully criticized … for abridging First Amendment rights.”
We haven’t forgotten here in Mississippi and the rest of the South. Have we?
[Editor’s Note: Julian Assange does not face charges in the US and Justice Department officials reportedly told the Washington Post in November 2013 that there is little possibility of bringing a case against Assange, unless he is implicated in criminal activity other than releasing online top-secret military and diplomatic documents that were leaked to him.]
Joseph B. Atkins, a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi, is a veteran journalist and writer on labor issues. His blog is laborsouth.blogspot.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this article recently ran in the Jackson, Miss., Free Press.
From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2014
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