Enter the Surveillance Dragon

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Photo: TehelkaArchives
Photo: Tehelka Archives

At a hearing of the United States Senate Committee on Intelligence on 12 March 2013, Senator Ron Wyden asked Director of National Intelligence James R Clapper, Jr., a simple, straightforward question. Wyden wanted to know whether the National Security Agency (NSA) collects “any type of data on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans”. Clapper said no, it doesn’t. An unconvinced Wyden repeated the question and then Clapper replied: “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently collect, but not wittingly.”

Almost three months later, on 6 June, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the agency was collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans. Following Snowden’s revelations, Clapper “clarified” that he had inadvertently erred in his answer to the Senate since he misunderstood Wyden’s question. Two years after he gave the “erroneous” statement to the Senate, Clapper continues as the Director of National Intelligence.

US President Barack Obama, too, was caught on the wrong foot after Snowden went public with his sensational revelations. The leaked documents exposed how America had been spying on world leaders, including those from its friendly nations. Global outrage followed the disclosure, yet Obama was unapologetic. The US “will not apologise simply because our services may be more effective,’’ he infamously asserted last January.

So, is the dystopian world George Orwell described in his futuristic novel 1984 as close as fiction gets to the reality of the Surveillance State all around us? The ubiquitous machinery of digital surveillance in the 21st century has brought to life Orwell’s fantasy of the “Thought Police” in fictional Oceania.

In fact, the new hyperlinked world order cannot be imagined without the all-pervasive and intrusive presence of the Thought Police in every sphere of human life. And it is armed and dangerous — armed with mass surveillance programmes such as PRISM in the US and the Central Monitoring System (CMS) in India, and dangerous because most of its activities are carried out under the cloak of secrecy and outside the purview of legislative and judicial oversight.

Surveillance, though, is as old as the hills and has been a part of policing ever since the first State came into being. But, it was during the Cold War between the US-led “free world” and the USSR-led “communist bloc”, which dominated world history through much of the 20th century, that Big Brother came to full, blooming life in two mutually competing versions — the FBI-CIA type in the US and the KGB type in the Soviet Union. As a result, nothing remained private any more. Snooping into the everyday lives of citizens across the world came to seen as a legitimate activity for agencies of the State and the relationship between citizens and the State took on the shape of the panopticon — a building designed so that a single watchman could observe all the inmates of an institution without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.

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Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) was engaged in a series of covert — and often illegal — projects called COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) that proved to be a game-changer in the history of surveillance. The targets were domestic political groups and dissidents. The American public became aware of the existence of such a programme only in 1971 when the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI raided a field office of the agency, seized several dossiers and passed them on to the media. Many news organisations initially refused to publish the information, but within the year, FBI Director Edgar J Hoover declared COINTELPRO closed, saying that future counterintelligence operations would be handled on a case-to-case basis. More documents came to light during a series of lawsuits filed against the FBI by NBC correspondent Carl Stern and political groups such as the Socialist Workers Party, many former agents confessed to their involvement in illegal activities sanctioned by the FBI, and the COINTELPRO revelations snowballed into a major controversy in the US.

Documents from the period reveal that the FBI was orchestrating covert operations against groups and individuals it saw as “subversive”, including the Communist Party of the USA, the Socialist Workers Party, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the American Indian movement of indigenous people, the Black nationalist groups, the White supremacist groups, a wide range of organisations such as Students for a Democratic Society and the Weathermen, which were labelled “New Left” and groups seeking independence for Puerto Rico and United Ireland. That is how the public came to know that the FBI had been trying to “infiltrate, misdirect, discredit and disrupt or neutralise” certain groups and individuals.

The disclosed documents reveal that the FBI employed three types of methods to achieve its goals, namely, infiltration, deception and harassment or intimidation. In its attempt to crush the Black nationalist and civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., was picked as a prime target. Many researchers believe that COINTELPRO was responsible for the death of many civil rights activists, including King and Malcom X. It carried out covert operations to brand them as people out to destroy America and spread the canard that in the guise of fighting for civil rights, they were actually trying to promote chaos in society.

After the Washington March for Jobs and Freedom on 28 August 1963, during which King delivered his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, the FBI targeted him more rigorously. In an internal memo, the FBI acknowledged that he was the “most effective Negro leader” in the country and stressed on the need to “neutralise” him. His phones were bugged and his associates were closely followed. Just before King was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, the FBI took the campaign against him a step further when Director Hoover called him a “notorious liar”.

That was just the beginning of the FBI hounding of America’s most revered Black leader. The agency sent an anonymous letter to King threatening to expose him for his extramarital relations. They made it seem as if it was written by a disillusioned civil rights activist, but many believe that it was the handiwork of Hoover’s deputy William Sullivan. The letter concluded with an open threat: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do it. You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” It meant that if King did not kill himself, he would be disgraced in public.

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