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It’s Vitally Important that Your Government Continue to Spy on You

Lady using telephone


In the 1950s and early 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama was swept by a long wave of domestic terrorism. White supremacists planted so many bombs in one African-American neighborhood that it came to be known by the nickname “Dynamite Hill.” A local Ku Klux Klan leader, Robert Chambliss, similarly came to be known as “Dynamite Bob.”

While bombs exploded and children died, government officials performed urgent surveillance of domestic communications. Many transgressors were swept up in the wiretapping dragnet—the New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury, for example. Police Commissioner Bull Connor’s detectives were wired into the switchboard at Salisbury’s hotel. All of the reporter’s local sources were soon summoned to appear before the county grand jury, a threat dressed up as a legal proceeding. The frequency and seriousness of Birmingham’s bomb attacks meant officials had an urgent security need that demanded aggressive domestic surveillance: they had to gain the upper hand over embarrassing news stories about the violence.

As Nidal Hasan and the Tsarnaev brothers learned, America’s domestic communications surveillance programs don’t stop terrorism. That’s not what they’re supposed to do, and not what they have ever done. COINTELPRO was a political effort, not a national security program; the LAPD’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division kept watch on Daryl Gates’s political enemies; the Boston Police Department’s counterterrorism unit missed the plot to bomb the Boston Marathon, but was all over local church groups inviting Cindy Sheehan and the like to speak in public meetings. This is the normal pattern of domestic spying, its ordinary and deliberate purpose and function. The object of state security is state security.

So now comes Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chair Dianne Feinstein, to warn against all of this new privacy stuff that people are babbling about these days. “A lot of the privacy people, perhaps, don’t understand that we still occupy the role of the Great Satan,” she said in a Sunday morning recitation of talking points with David Gregory.

Feinstein was responding to a speech by President Obama, America’s most prominent nonentity, who apparently said that he was going to rein in the abuses of the NSA—an agency that has answered to him for more than five years. I very carefully didn’t watch the speech or read much about it—and a moment, please, while I yawn myself unconscious. As I wrote last year in another context, Obama “pantomimes dissent from his own power, gesturing against the choices he continues to make. Someone should really do something about this unrestrained national security state, says the current president of the United States.” So, yeah, pretty much that.

Notably, Feinstein sounded precisely like her co-religionist, Republican Mike Rogers, her counterpart on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. You want bipartisan consensus in Congress? Here it is, and what a shameful spectacle it makes. The people who oversee the nation’s intelligence agencies somehow have no idea, or somehow think they can plausibly pretend to have no idea, that aggressive state surveillance can be a political tool. Who needs enemies? We have Congress.

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