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Surveillance State: Government Snooping, Prying, and Informing Worse Than You Think

Tainted character, ruined trust and the disruption of democratic politics are the great achievements of state surveillance.

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The identification of dissident political groups, the gathering of names, the manipulation of actual acts -- these are the overt purposes of surveillance and informing. In reality, the goal of all this furtive, fervent activity is not to dismantle terrorist networks but to disrupt legitimate civic and political activity -- and especially, in the post-9/11 world, to identify and infiltrate U.S. Muslim and Middle Eastern congregations, civic groups, neighborhoods, and activist organizations.

Toward that end, the FBI has moved to beef up its ranks of informers. In its 2008 budget, the bureau sought more than $13 million simply to vet and track more than 15,000 working informants, and noted that new informants are signing up every day. Information provided by those informants and by other increasingly ubiquitous and sophisticated surveillance techniques is now funneled to fusion centers -- making it all just a mouse-click away from public and private agencies nationwide.

In the 1960s, when Ernest Withers was an informant, such computer-driven intelligence storage and distribution was only a gleam in J. Edgar Hoover’s eye. Nevertheless, in Memphis, where Withers did the bulk of his work, information he passed along helped dismantle the Invaders, a radical group that saw 34 members arrested. Withers also gave government handlers photographs of religious leaders, political activists, and labor organizers, shadow portraits for shadow profiles in the FBI’s burgeoning files. These were used by law enforcement authorities in efforts to control the 1968 sanitation workers' strike that brought Martin Luther King to Memphis.

Withers’s image of striking Memphis sanitation workers holding aloft an unbroken sea of signs reading “I Am A Man” remains as vivid today as it was half a century ago. That a photographer who documented the segregated South so powerfully labored as a police informer may seem an unnerving contradiction. But Ronald Reagan also served as an FBI informer. So did the ACLU’s famed First Amendment lawyer, Morris Ernst. Gerald Ford, a member of the Warren Commission, funneled information about the Kennedy assassination directly to J. Edgar Hoover as well.

Informers have multiple, often conflicting motives, and Withers, who died in 2007, is not around to explain or defend himself. The report on his activities during the civil rights movement, his betrayals of the movement’s most prominent leaders, and his hand in destroying local activist groups, however, is a powerful reminder of the long history of political surveillance in this country and the corruptions and animus it breeds. Whether it is the FBI’s use of informers within the civil rights movement or the state of Pennsylvania’s monitoring of legitimate dissent in the post-9/11 world, the ultimate victim of such activity is American civil society itself.

The tainting of character, the undermining of basic trust, the disruption of democratic politics -- these are the great achievements of state surveillance. Thanks to 9/11 and truckloads of homeland security money, the stain of those achievements is now flowing as swiftly and freely as streams of data on a vast fiber optic network.

[Note on sources: Analysis of the use of surveillance and fusion centers at G-20 summits in Pittsburgh and elsewhere may be found in .pdf file format here.  Alarmist police reports disseminated on G-20 threats in Pittsburgh can be found in .pdf file format here.  The 2008 FBI budget document can be seen in .pdf file format here. The Justice Department’s Inspector General has just issued a report examining the propriety of FBI investigation and surveillance of domestic political activity; the report, well worth reading, can be found, also in .pdf file format, here.]

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