Surveillance, America's Pastime

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Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His most recent book is Mohamed's Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland. This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

The dried blood on the concrete floor is there for all to see, a stain forever marking the spot on a Memphis motel balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr. lay mortally wounded by a sniper's bullet.

It is a stark and ghostly image speaking to the sharp pain of absence. King is gone. His aides are gone. Only the stain remains. What now?
That image is, of course, a photograph taken by Ernest C. Withers, Memphis born and bred, and known as the photographer of the civil rights movement.  He was there at the Lorraine Motel, as he had been at so many other critical places, recording iconic images of those tumultuous years. 

In addition to photographing moments large and small in the struggle for black civil rights in the South, Withers had another job. He was an informer for the FBI, passing along information on the doings of King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Ben Hooks, and other leaders of the movement. He reported on meetings he attended as a photographer, welcomed in by those he knew so intimately. He passed along photos of events and gatherings to his handler, Special Agent William H. Lawrence of the FBI's Memphis office. He named names and sketched out plans.

In an exhaustive recent report, the Memphis Commercial Appeal detailed Withers's undercover activities, provoking a pained and complex response from the many who knew him and were involved in the civil rights movement.  His family simply refuses to believe that the paper's report could be accurate. On the other hand, Andrew Young, with King during those last moments, accepts Withers's career as an informant, saying it just doesn't bother him.  Civil rights leaders, including King, viewed Withers as crucial to the movement's struggle to portray itself accurately in Jet, Ebony, and other black journals. In that Withers was successful -- and the rest, Young suggests, doesn't matter.  Besides, he told the Commercial Appeal, they had nothing to hide.  "I don't think Dr. King would have minded him making a little money on the side."

Activist and comedian Dick Gregory, hearing Young's comments, turned on his old comrade. "We are talking about a guy hired by the FBI to destroy us and the fact that Andy could say that means there must be a deep hatred down inside of him," he said. "If he feels that way about King only God knows what he feels about the rest of us."

This is the way it is with informers, so useful to reckless law enforcement authorities and employed by the tens of thousands as the secret shock troops of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Surveillance has multiple uses, not the least of which is to sow mistrust, which in turn eats at the cohesion of families, social and political movements, and ultimately the fabric of community itself.

D'Army Bailey, a former Memphis judge and target of FBI surveillance in the 1960s, told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that the use of informers in everyday life ruptured fundamental civic bonds, fomenting deep suspicion and mistrust. "It's something you would expect in the most ruthless totalitarian regimes.  Once that trust is shattered that doesn't go away."

Earl Caldwell, a former New York Times reporter and now a professor of journalism at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University, pointed out that the black community in the South in the 1960s granted a special trust to black journalists. Indeed, some of those journalists took out an ad in black newspapers in February 1970 pledging not to spy or inform or betray that trust.

"If all that we've been told through these documents that have been released, if that's true, then it puts a... very, very, very heavy, heavy mark not just on [Withers] and his work but on the trust that the black journalists made many years ago with the black community," Caldwell said.

Keeping Tabs on Americans for Fun and Profit

That was then, this is now.  The Withers story is, of course, ancient history, shocking to many, yes, even though it is well known that FBI and police informers permeated the movement in general and King's circle in particular, and illegal wiretaps and bugs snared even the most private conversations of civil rights leaders. But few who thought or wrote about the Withers news found it an especially relevant tale for our present moment.  How wrong they were. 

If, amid anti-communist hysterias and social upheaval decades ago, the U.S. government employed armies of informers and other forms of often illegal surveillance, government and law enforcement agencies today are actually casting a far broader surveillance net in the name of security in a relentless effort to watch and hear everything -- and to far less attention or concern than in the 1960s.

In fact, a controversy in Pennsylvania has just erupted over secret state surveillance of legitimate political groups engaged in meetings, protests, and debates involving subjects of public importance -- natural gas drilling, abortion, military policy, animal mistreatment, gay rights. Such controversies over domestic political spying have surfaced remarkably regularly since September 11, 2001 -- police and FBI informers in mosques, Defense Department surveillance of antiwar groups and even gay organizations, National Security Agency illegal wiretapping, and surveillance of groups planning protests for the political conventions of the major parties. Revelations of such activities have become almost white noise.  All were covered in the media, but cumulatively it's as though none of them ever happened.

The Pennsylvania surveillance case, which is just the latest of these glimpses into the secret surveillance world of our ever more powerful national security state, does not directly involve informers (as far as we know). It marks a different point on what FBI Director Robert Mueller has referred to as the "continuum" -- the whole environment of daily life, really, which in the post-9/11 world has been appropriated by law enforcement officials in the name of "terrorism prevention."

"There is a continuum between those who would express dissent and those who would do a terrorist act," Mueller said ominously in a 2002 speech. "Somewhere along that continuum we have to begin to investigate. If we do not, we are not doing our job. It is difficult for us to find a path between the two extremes."

What does that mean? Just last week, FBI agents raided half a dozen homes of anti-war activists in Minneapolis and Chicago, carting away papers, computers, clothing, and other personal effects, all in the name of investigating "material support of terrorism." The activists, their supporters, and their attorneys have a different view: they see the raids as designed to intimidate and disrupt legitimate political dissent -- points on "the continuum." It is a virtual certainty that evidence of intrusive surveillance will surface as these cases mature.

In Pennsylvania the continuum has meant, most recently, that the state Office of Homeland Security contracted with a small outfit, the Institute of Terrorism Response and Research, run by a couple of ex-cops, one from York, Pennsylvania, the other raised in Philadelphia and a veteran of Israeli law enforcement. For the past year, the institute has been providing secret intelligence reports via the state Homeland Security Office to Pennsylvania police departments and private companies in order, the reports say, to "support public and private sector, critical infrastructure protection initiatives and strategies."

Many of these reports focused on groups opposed to Marcellus Shale drilling, which you may not have known was a breeding ground for terrorism. In fact, you may not even know what it is. But particularly in Pennsylvania and New York, Marcellus Shale means big bucks. The shale is part of a 600-mile-long geological formation containing a huge reservoir of natural gas.  Energy companies are seeking to exploit that formation in ways that have raised serious and widespread environmental concerns.

Ed Rendell, governor of Pennsylvania, facing severe budget problems, wants to impose a tax on the eager drillers. With Marcellus Shale, there's something for everybody -- except for environmentalists concerned about the impact of drilling on the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the Delaware River basin.

Opposition from various environmental groups, then, has threatened to spoil the party. What a surprise to find many of those groups mentioned in one "counterterrorism" report after another. For instance, a report on an "anti-gas" training session in Ithaca, New York, noted that the group conducting the training (part of a radical environmental network) was nonviolent, but should be considered dangerous anyway.
"Training provided by the Ruckus Group does not include violent tactics such as the use of IEDs [roadside bombs] or small arms," a 2009 institute report assured its no-doubt-relieved readers. "The Ruckus Group does, however, provide expertise in planning and conducting demonstrations and campaigns that can close down a facility and embarrass a company." To spell it out: this counterterrorist monitoring institute was providing public-relations alerts for private energy companies at tax-payer expense.

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