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MLK was under constant surveillance. (photo: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images) 
MLK was under constant surveillance. (photo: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images)


MLK, Victim of the Surveillance State

By Charles Pierce


he most queasy-inducing part of the president’s big NSA speech last week was this passage:

In fact, during the course of our review, I’ve often reminded myself I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents like Dr. King who were spied upon by their own government. And as president, a president who looks at intelligence every morning, I also can’t help but be reminded that America must be vigilant in the face of threats.

Is there any doubt, had there been a Dr. King in the past two decades who opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as vigorously as Dr. King opposed the Vietnam catastrophe at the end of his life, that the full might of the modern American intelligence apparatus would have landed squarely on his head? That his metadata would be unusually — How you say? — piquant in the various cubicles at NSA? That some of it would be strategically leaked to strategically important congresscritters and pundits and reporters? That, upon taking office in 2009, this president would have kept in place most of the programs with which that data on our new Dr. King was collected, perhaps tailoring them around the edges, perhaps installing some more weak-tea oversight than was there before, but keeping the basic philosophy behind the programs embedded in the American government as some sort of “balance” between security and civil liberties? I have none.

In Enemies, his admirable history of the FBI, Tim Weiner describes an episode in the late 1960s in which J. Edgar Hoover found himself frustrated — and endangered — by congressional investigations into the FBI’s surveillance malfeasance regarding Dr. King and the antiwar movement with which he had allied himself. This has been put in place by Robert F. Kennedy and other liberals who agreed, with Wilentz apparently, that intelligence gathering is an essential part of the “modern liberal state.” (The LBJ Justice Department also was getting nervous about the political fallout of what the FBI had been doing somehow became generally known.) Weiner writes:

Senator William Fulbright, Democrat of Arkansas and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was threatening to oversee the FBI’s intelligence work; President Johnson warned Hoover to keep a very close eye on Fulbright, whom he suspected was holding secret meetings with Soviet diplomats. A far less prominent Democratic senator, Edward Long of Missouri, had started a scattershot series of hearings on government wiretapping. “He cannot be trusted,” an FBI intelligence supervisor warned.

The argument never changes, and it never has changed, from the moment after World War II when it was determined that the country needed a vast intelligence apparatus, and that, occasionally, because mistakes are made, these various institutions would act in an extraconstitutional manner, but that these mistakes would quickly be rectified by a combination of the good faith efforts of the people who made the mistakes, and the white-hot wrath of congressional oversight. (The press has a role, too, but it must be carefully circumscribed, lest the enemy find aid and comfort there.) And thus did the intelligence apparatus become so essential to the “modern liberal state” that Sean Wilentz can claim in The New Republic that the lack of fealty to the imperatives of the surveillance community as demonstrated by Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Julian Assange is an assault on modern liberal state itself.

Nothing is ever new. In 1976, a congressional committee chaired by Rep. Otis Pike of New York explored various malfeasance by the intelligence community. The committee’s support was suppressed by the congressional lapdogs of said community. Daniel Schorr got a hold of a copy and disseminated it, and there was considerable hell to pay. (Schorr resigned from CBS under pressure after refusing to identify his source to a congressional committee.) As it happens, there was long passage in a draft report concerning the ambitions of the NSA:

This was 1976. Nothing changes, except the technology. Notice the quaint references to “telegrams” and “telex” messages. A decade earlier, when national security regrettably required that Dr. King be wiretapped, it was bugs in hotel rooms. There always are threats that require us to make “sacrifices” in order to “balance” the surveillance imperative with the Bill of Rights. So this is as good a way as any to remember today Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., victim of the surveillance state.


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.