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In June, Edward Snowden sparked controversy when he revealed that the National Security Agency had been collecting the phone data of every American. In a video message in December, Snowden explained his motive:

Recently, we learned that our governments, working in concert, have created a system of worldwide mass surveillance, watching everything we do. Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person. A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all…

The conversation occurring today will determine the amount of trust we can place both in the technology that surrounds us and the government that regulates it. Together, we can find a better balance.


End mass surveillance.

In a speech Friday, President Obama attempted to find balance by announcing plans to reform current surveillance policy. Unfortunately, he revealed no substantive changes. The President’s reforms were so inconsequential that outspoken NSA defender Rep. Peter King (R-NY) called them “cosmetic changes” that would still leave “99 percent” of current policy intact.

Last week an American president essentially said that mass, indiscriminate surveillance of citizens by the government was now the norm. Without a hint of irony, President Obama even said, “I have often reminded myself that I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents like Dr. King, who were spied on by their own government.”

Judging by President Obama’s surveillance policies, he needs better reminding of King’s experience with the US government.

Long before Snowden revealed the NSA’s secret PRISM program, there was Minaret. The Guardian reports, “The National Security Agency secretly tapped into the overseas phone calls of prominent critics of the Vietnam War, including Martin Luther King… (The NSA) went to great lengths to keep its activities, known as operation Minaret, from public view… Minaret was initially intended for drug traffickers and terrorist suspects, but was twisted, at the request of the White House, to become a tool for tracking legitimate political activities of war protesters.”

The White House bending or breaking rules to target political enemies is nothing new, as many tea party conservatives learned last spring.

Why, or how, could the government so intentionally abuse King? Because they began to view him as an enemy of the state. As FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover told President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, “Based on King’s recent activities and public utterances, it is clear that he is an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our nation.”

Once such a threshold is crossed in the minds of government officials, they often justify throwing citizens’ constitutional protections out the window. Anything becomes necessary to “keep us safe.”

But at least in King’s era, the NSA and FBI had to knowingly break the law. Obama now basically says, in a meandering way, there is no law or at least our understanding of it has changed dramatically.

Defenders of NSA mass surveillance say it isn’t a problem because there is no evidence of abuse. But the injustices against King are prime examples of the kind of abuse an unfettered government can wield against dissidents.

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Defenders of current NSA policy say it is essential in preventing another 9/11. But it is precisely the potential for even greater abuse in the wake of a national tragedy that makes such power so troublesome.

George Mason University’s History News Network recalls the disdain for civil liberties in the weeks and months after 9/11 (emphasis mine):

On May 30, 2002, the same day America mourned the victims of the September 11 attack and the conclusion of the Ground Zero cleanup, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller III unveiled sweeping new surveillance powers for the FBI…

Under what New York Times columnist William Safire characterized as “the new Ashcroft-Mueller diktat,” the FBI will now be able to conduct investigations for up to a year without the necessity of showing any suspicion of criminal activity. The G-men and G-women can create dossiers on anyone they like, tracking the Internet sites we visit, trips we take, our political and charitable contributions, magazine subscriptions, book purchases, and meetings we attend.

President Obama’s surveillance policies have taken Bush-Cheney era civil liberties offenses to new lows. But in 2002, it was also noted that Dr. King experienced the same government abuse:

The relaxation of the FBI’s surveillance guidelines will likely return us to the days of J. Edgar Hoover’s dreaded COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program)… COINTELPRO was designed, by its own terms, to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize” political and activist groups.

In the 1960s, the FBI targeted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a program called “Racial Matters.” King’s campaign to register African-American voters in the South raised the hackles of the FBI, which disingenuously claimed King’s organization was being infiltrated by communists. In fact, the FBI was really concerned that King’s civil rights campaign “represented a clear threat to the established order of the U.S.” The FBI went after King with a vengeance, wiretapping his telephones and securing very personal information which it used to try to drive him to divorce and suicide, and to discredit him.

Will we ever learn?

Snowden’s primary concern has always been that we are entering an age in which unlimited mass surveillance is the new norm. President Obama’s speech last week only reinforced those fears.

We need security but must also value liberty. We need, as Snowden put it, “a better balance.” Today, we don’t have it.

The potential for abuse that President Obama and the NSA’s defenders promise won’t happen did happen to King. It happened long before we had the technology to amass everyone’s private information. It happened during a time when the President was not openly flouting the Constitution.

To say that the abuse the NSA and FBI dealt King could not happen again is to ignore history and human nature. Surrendering trust to government beyond what the Constitution allows is something common sense should always forbid.

As we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. for his civil rights triumphs, let us also remember his civil liberties lessons. They remain instructive, today more than ever.

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