The perception that invasive surveillance is confined only to a marginalised and deserving group of those “doing wrong” – the bad people – ensures that the majority acquiesces to the abuse of power or even cheers it on. But that view radically misunderstands what goals drive all institutions of authority. “Doing something wrong” in the eyes of such institutions encompasses far more than illegal acts, violent behaviour and terrorist plots. It typically extends to meaningful dissent and any genuine challenge. It is the nature of authority to equate dissent with wrongdoing, or at least with a threat.
The record is suffused with examples of groups and individuals being placed under government surveillance by virtue of their dissenting views and activism – Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, anti-war activists, environmentalists. In the eyes of the government and J Edgar Hoover’s FBI, they were all “doing something wrong”: political activity that threatened the prevailing order.
The FBI’s domestic counterintelligence programme, Cointelpro, was first exposed by a group of anti-war activists who had become convinced that the anti-war movement had been infiltrated, placed under surveillance and targeted with all sorts of dirty tricks. Lacking documentary evidence to prove it and unsuccessful in convincing journalists to write about their suspicions, they broke into an FBI branch office in Pennsylvania in 1971 and carted off thousands of documents.
Files related to Cointelpro showed how the FBI had targeted political groups and individuals it deemed subversive and dangerous, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, black nationalist movements, socialist and communist organizations, anti-war protesters and various rightwing groups. The bureau had infiltrated them with agents who, among other things, attempted to manipulate members into agreeing to commit criminal acts so that the FBI could arrest and prosecute them.
Those revelations led to the creation of the Senate Church Committee, which concluded: “[Over the course of 15 years] the bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilate operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of first amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.”
These incidents were not aberrations of the era. During the Bush years, for example, documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed, as the group put it in 2006, “new details of Pentagon surveillance of Americans opposed to the Iraq war, including Quakers and student groups“. The Pentagon was “keeping tabs on non-violent protesters by collecting information and storing it in a military anti-terrorism database”. The evidence shows that assurances that surveillance is only targeted at those who “have done something wrong” should provide little comfort, since a state will reflexively view any challenge to its power as wrongdoing.
The opportunity those in power have to characterise political opponents as “national security threats” or even “terrorists” has repeatedly proven irresistible. In the past decade, the government, in an echo of Hoover’s FBI, has formally so designatedenvironmental activists, broad swaths of anti-government rightwing groups, anti-war activists, and associations organised around Palestinian rights. Some individuals within those broad categories may deserve the designation, but undoubtedly most do not, guilty only of holding opposing political views. Yet such groups are routinely targeted for surveillance by the NSA and its partners.
One document from the Snowden files, dated 3 October 2012, chillingly underscores the point. It revealed that the agency has been monitoring the online activities of individuals it believes express “radical” ideas and who have a “radicalising” influence on others.
The NSA explicitly states that none of the targeted individuals is a member of a terrorist organisation or involved in any terror plots. Instead, their crime is the views they express, which are deemed “radical“, a term that warrants pervasive surveillance and destructive campaigns to “exploit vulnerabilities”.
Among the information collected about the individuals, at least one of whom is a “US person”, are details of their online sex activities and “online promiscuity” – the porn sites they visit and surreptitious sex chats with women who are not their wives. The agency discusses ways to exploit this information to destroy their reputations and credibility.
The NSA’s treatment of Anonymous, as well as the vague category of people known as “hacktivists”, is especially troubling and extreme. That’s because Anonymous is not actually a structured group but a loosely organised affiliation of people around an idea: someone becomes affiliated with Anonymous by virtue of the positions they hold. Worse still, the category “hacktivists” has no fixed meaning: it can mean the use of programming skills to undermine the security and functioning of the internetbut can also refer to anyone who uses online tools to promote political ideals. That the NSA targets such broad categories of people is tantamount to allowing it to spy on anyone anywhere, including in the US, whose ideas the government finds threatening.
Daniel Ellsberg notes that Obama’s claim of power to indefinitely detain people without charges or access to a lawyer or the courts is a power that even King George – the guy we fought the Revolutionary War against – didn’t claim. (And former judge and adjunct professor of constitutional law Andrew Napolitano points out that Obama’s claim that he can indefinitely detain prisoners even after they are acquitted of their crimes is a power that even Hitler and Stalin didn’t claim.)