Why Americans should be worried about state surveillance

As the Prism/NSA leaks story unfolds, many Americans are left with a cynical "are you surprised?" response that rather misses the point. Recent American history is full of stories of spies using surveillance to target civil rights heroes like Martin Luther King, who was heavily surveilled during the Kennedy administration, culminating with the FBI sending him an anonymous package with evidence of his adultery and a note telling him to kill himself.

Here's a video and transcript of an excellent Chris Hayes editorial on MSNBC in which Hayes reminds us that America's spooks can and do use intelligence to attack causes that are later seen as being on the side of justice:

In 1964, after Hoover called King the most "notorious liar in the country" in a press conference, a package was sent to King in the mail, a package the House select committee ultimately traced back to the FBI. Inside this package, one of the most remarkable artifacts in American history was an anonymous letter addressed to Martin Luther King and a copy of an electronic surveillance tape apparently to lend credence to threats of exposure of derogatory personal information made in the letter. We don't know to this day for sure what was on that tape. The heavy speculation throughout the years it was of personal and sexual nature recorded by a device planted in Dr. King's hotel room.

The letter that came with the tape read in part, "you know you are complete fraud and a great liability to all of us negroes. The American public will know you for what you are, an evil abnormal beast. King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. 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." The committee considered it highly likely that Director Hoover had before the fact knowledge of the action.

So that's a letter encouraging Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to kill himself, sent to King from the FBI. This happened in American history. It's just one example out of many of how the full weight of the surveillance state constructed to fight the cold war was used against the people working for racial equality. It may have been constructed to defeat the Russians and the genuine threat of global communism, but it was deployed on people like Carmichael and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Chris Hayes: "It's not some Orwellian abstraction. It's America's history" (via Making Light)


  1. ” It’s not my fault that Buttle’s heart condition didn’t appear on Tuttle’s file!”

  2. There are two things that piss me off beyond words about this stuff.

    First, the secrecy.  If the NSA, a military spy agency, is going to do domestic spying, it should, at an absolute bare minimum, be out in the open and fully subject to normal judicial law.  Does that make the program slightly less effective?  Probably.  Who gives a shit?  When you have secret laws, secret rules, secret courts running, run by secret unelected officials, you are screaming for MLK like abuse.  I am not afraid of terrorist.  I am afraid of pissing off a spook who covertly makes my life hell with absolutely no possible chance of redress.  If we want to live in a surveillance state, it should all be out in the open so that at the very least is abuses can’t be much worse than the abuse of any other cop.  That is hardly reassuring, but it is a bare minimum.

    Second, the cowardice.  We shouldn’t want to live in a surveillance state, even an open one.  Terrorism is not fucking scary.  It isn’t worth it.  Anyone afraid of terrorist in the US who wants to parcel off my liberty so they are a little safer is a god damn mother fucking coward.  Bathtubs kill more more Americans each year since 9/11 than terrorist.  Seriously, fucking bathtubs.  Would you pay a few hundred billion dollars and set up a surveillance state to cut the number of bathtub deaths in half or even drop them to zero?  No?  Awesome, summon that same courage and say the same thing about terrorism.

    In a world where nearly all Americans are going to die of a eating themselves to death, cancer, an age disease, or falling over, you have to be some epic combination of stupid and cowardly to be afraid of terrorist.  I make it a personal point to call each and every person I run into who mews about terrorism being scary a coward to their face.  You should too.  We don’t need a spying program.  We need a culture change that puts terrorism in the place it belongs, below bathtub accidents.

    1.  Yeah, but the fact that bathtubs kill more people than the terrorists, means that their methods are working!?! Doesn’t it? That answer covers most arguments.

      1. There is a pretty easy response to “but it is working!”.  Call them a coward.  Don’t mince words.  Just be like, “wow, that sure is cowardly coward talk I hear spewing from your mouth parts.”  It works.  The argument of “you are a god damn mother fucking cowardly piece of shit” cuts hard, cuts deep, and it is the truth.  Because this argument is pure unadulterated liquid truth, there is almost no defense for it. You can meet each counter argument with “wow, that you sure are a coward”.  They might try and squirm away by explaining that it isn’t for THEIR feelings, but for all the other people.  This is easily managed with “why are you trying to appease cowards?  I don’t care what cowards think, and neither should you.  Caring so deeply what cowards think makes me suspect cowardice on your part…”

        The people that really get off on the domestic spying and tossing money at the military tend to see themselves as macho dudes who get a woody at the idea of America being “strong”.  Strong in this context is spending money on domestic spying and buying the military all the toys.  The argument of “but you sound like a god damn coward”, skewers these people.  It skewers them even harder if they know you sit left of them (though it also works very well if you are to the right).  It is shaming, and it jackhammers at their ego.  

        Try it.  The worst case scenario is that the argument is so brutally cutting to their ego that they get upset and don’t want to talk about it anymore.  That is fine.  That “I don’t want to talk about this anymore” feeling is called shame.  Shame works.

        1. So….rather than having a logical discussion involving facts and intellect, you descend to the kindergarten tactic of calling people names (or, really, one name in various permutations over and over and over.)  And all the while being so (to use your favorite word) cowardly as to hide behind a pseudonym.       

          1. The question of whether one values liberty or safety more is a value judgment.  You cannot make a logical argument based on facts that will sway someone one way or the other.  There is no logically superior set of values, value judgments are always in some sense arbitrary.

            However, you can make a value-based argument citing facts: “terrorists kill fewer people than bathtubs.  If you’re afraid of something that is less dangerous than a bathtub then you are a coward.”  I’m with Rindan on this one.

          2.  ding!  not to mention there ARE many value judgements that seem to better society and therefore are far and away accepted by and promoted by society at large.  protecting all fellow people by not being a coward (in this context), i’d think, would be one of them.

          3. If kindergarteners are more honest than adults, then I wholly support descending to their level.

          4. It hit the kindergarten level when we, with a straight face, started spending trillions of dollars against a form of risk that ranks below murder by bathtub.  If anyone was thinking with even an ounce of their rational and logical brain we wouldn’t ever even talk of terrorism because it is such a stupidly obscure way to die.

            This isn’t name calling.  This is a values debate.  If someone slam security on a pedestal  as the absolute highest value, I am going to counter that what they are valuing is really just an absurdly extreme form cowardice.

            Saying “you are a coward”, is about as clear and direct of an argument as you can make.  The other person is then invited to defend their position that they are not a fucking coward of the highest level.

            We have tried using the language that our political class has given to us.  Our political class wants us utterly terrorized and use language that distorts what is a blindly simple proposition.  Are you so afraid of an absurdly rare way to die that you are willing to piss away all of your liberty and a huge portion of our collective wealth?  

            It is time to take the language back and throw this double speak bullshit out the window.  This isn’t a question of security or liberty.  This is a question between cowardice or liberty.  The other side doesn’t stand for security.  They stand for unadulterated cowardice.  The only way to stop this bull shit is to strip away the double speak.

            Calling someone a racist a racist or a homophobe a bigot has done wonders to make these things socially unacceptable.  It hasn’t eliminated the problem, but simply calling the problem out has done wonders.  Most people, even racist people, are genuinely afraid of being called or viewed as a racist in polite company, when it was once socially acceptable.  We can do the same thing here and now.  Call people out as god damn mother fucking cowards.  Mindless terror over nothing is what drove us here.  Shame and a little pride is what can help us find our collective sanity once again.

    2.  It makes one wonder what they’re defending. I mean, what’s the point of freedom if you’re not free?

  3. The only thing more worrying than the massive scale surveillance itself is that there is actually a need to explain why we should be worried about it.

      1. I admit I don’t follow politics at all, but after watching 3/4 of it, I don’t make the connection between the New Jersey senate race and the text of the post.  is it something to do with the outgoing senator’s death?

  4. My reaction to the above still does not rise to the level of surprise. 

    The question is what are we going to do about it. If I see more than a hundred people do anything together besides write letters, I will be shocked.

    The average person (56% according to Pew) is more bothered by the idea that a bad guy might hijack their flight to Dayton than that the government is listening to their phone calls. 

    Until the majority of Americans have seen literal bootmarks on each other’s faces, we will not rise. All the government has to do is prevent widespread police brutality and they’ll get away with this for as long as they please.

    Who among the wider population would submit to pepper spray and rubber bullets (both of which can kill), to end a government program that we can’t see, hear or touch, and that we have vanishingly little information about?

    We don’t have the genetic constitution to have a visceral reaction to the potential loss of freedom of the mind. Our viscera just aren’t programmed that way yet. They will be, but it’s going to be a while.

    In the meanwhile, encourage your children to study ad-hoc networks and crypto.

      1. The program is secret. 

        It uses a secret amount of money, secret technologies, secret methodologies and has secret targets. 

        Have I been targeted? Have my loved ones? Exactly which of my interactions have they been looking at? Was it that phone call I made to my sister in Paris or my web browsing history? Could this information about me ever become public? Who has been reading it? Are they good people? Is the program helping to keep me safe?

        These are the kinds of information that matter to the average person. Nothing we currently know is of importance to the 56% of people who say that this kind of behavior is probably justified if it’s used to fight terrorism.

        1. All phone call metadata, ALL, direct access to Google, MS, Apple, Skype, et al servers. Yes, your data has been captured. Social analysis is the name of the game. 

          There is actually quite a bit out there on methodologies, etc.

          1. My point is that it only matters to you and few other people who will never find themselves surrounded by tens of thousands in the main squares of this country over this issue. 

            That’s what it will take to stop this, and even then it will take decades of perseverance to defund these programs and rid the government of people who want to get them refunded.

          2. Agreed, people don’t fear or hate or even despise what they can’t see. And even if they are upset, which I don’t see much evidence of, how to force change as force is what it will take. 

            In a month, less, this will be “old news”. Some cosmetic changes will be made, maybe, and then it will be “carry on”. 

          3.  i’m hopeful that the mainstream media coverage on this indicates you are wrong.  i don’t blame you for your scepticism, i just really hope, and am optimistic that our elected officials will prove you wrong.  add to that the ACLU, EFF, NAACP, and several senators speaking out, or suing about this.

  5. Why didn’t they release the MLK blackmail as threatened? I mean, they clearly did have it, and they had every motive to release it when he didn’t obediently shoot himself. Why not?

    1.  Just a guess, but if they had released it there would have been problems trying to hide the source of the information.  Just like every shady operation the FBI wanted to stay anonymous, hoping that their little ploy would work without having to carry through on the threat.

    2. Probably I’m just getting a firm grasp of the obvious here, but it was merely to fuck with his head.  Why threaten him with it, why not just release it?

      Not a huge fan of Mel Gibson the person, but I think he had it (EDIT: largely) right about death threats (from the filming of The Year of Living Dangerously).  If they were serious, they wouldn’t bother with any threat, they’d just handle it.

  6. It seems to me that the problem the US public has is it’s self-righteous ideologic complacency. Many USians don’t get the severity of this whole NSA situation because: “We’re the good guys, right?” or “Can’t be so bad, we’re in the Land of the Free.” or “‘Murricaaa”

    1. The willful blindness of “We are ‘Good People ™’ and they would never use this against ‘Good People ™’.  Anyone who complains is obviously ‘Bad People ™’ and just want to hide the bad things they are doing.”

    2. That complacency allows us to ignore the video of US helicopter pilots targeting and shooting journalists on the street in Iraq, and to look the other way when one of our soldiers goes on a rampage and shoots women and children. We’re the good guys, right?

      150,000 dead Iraqis might disagree.

      It also explains why we so willingly demonize the whistleblowers, because they force us to consider our actions.

      1. OK, I understand your error, since most people only saw (or only bothered to see) the heavily edited footage of the so called “helicopter pilots targeting and shooting journalists.”  Please go out and find the full version.  Yes, journalists were killed and that is very, very sad for their loved ones.  BUT, when you are walking down the street in a war zone with heavily armed men (including one holding an RPG — whose only purpose is taking down things like helicopters), it is not particularly surprising that you could be killed.  They were hardly targeted because they were journalists.  

        And I don’t know that ANYONE is OK about a soldier going on a shooting rampage.  That, too, is a tragedy but soldiers are just human and snap (or are insane) like anyone else when pushed beyond their endurance.

        Nor do I know anyone who demonizes whistleblowers.  (Not wishing to join in the deification of them is not the same as demonizing them.)  Until we understand their motives and what damage they have caused or danger they have put others in, some of us just withhold judgement either way.

        1.  There’s no error.  They really did kill journalists and people trying to provide aid.  Yes, you’re right — that’s just shit that happens in war.  That’s what makes us the bad guys: we started a war for no reason and tens of thousands of innocent people have died as a result.

          Way to apologize for evil.

          1.  this post makes your stance much easier to understand.  the first came off a bit conspiracy theorist…  wasn’t the soldier (that we know of) who went on a shooting rampage just prosecuted?  that being said, most of our recent military debacles in the middle east are a complete travesties and a miscarriage of what my representatives should be doing with my tax dollars.

          2.  I think you’re mistaking me for someone else since that was my first comment in this subthread. 

          3. Yes, the soldier I mentioned was prosecuted. Yay for us I guess. Too bad for the poor bastards who keep getting their doors broken down in the middle of the night, and whose family members have been killed. Or for the estimated 150,000 Iraqi’s who have died after we brought them “freedom”.

            Perhaps you think good intentions should count for more bonus points than I do. If that makes me a “conspiracy theorist”, so be it.

          4.  @llamaspit, just the part about “pilots targeting journalists” sounds conspiracy theorist and/or alarmist. i’m fully with you on the horrifics of these wars, as i stated.

          5. Yes, I did listen to the audio on the FULL version and what I heard was the adrenaline backwash that happens when you avoid the gruesome death that you were (or believed you were) staring in the face a minute earlier.  

            When you see someone carrying a weapon that is designed to take down precisely the vehicle that you are in and you get the guy before he gets you, yes, if you are some 19 year old kid you are going to whoop and holler that you are still alive.  War sucks.  And the wars that Bush started for the hell of it suck even more.  I wish no one ever had to go and wish no one ever had to kill.  And I wish no one’s lives were freaking ruined forever.  But it happens.  

            But it’s really, really easy for you to play Monday morning quarterback from your safe and cozy home.  You haven’t been broiling in 120 degree heat or dived under cover to keep from being blown to bits by mortars, or breathed only sand and dust for hours on end or been shot at or seen your friend’s legs blown off in front of you.  (And no, I haven’t either but I do personally know people who have.)

            Are we the good guys?  No, there’s no such thing.  Everyone thinks they’re the good guys but we’re all just people who do the best they can.  

            But, in any case, if you have all the answers as to how to put the genie of free electronic communication back in the bottle, go to it.  We’re all watching and waiting to Monday morning quarterback your efforts. 

        2. Like a lot of people who tune out the ugliness in the world, I think you see what you choose to see. 

          Unlike during the VietNam War, the US has kept the body bags hidden from us during this fiasco. But thanks to a few brave people (Manning, Snowden, etc.) who risk their personal freedom to reveal what we are doing, we are slowly finding out what these stupid wars have cost;  in blood, in treasure, in personal privacy.

          Withhold judgement all you like, history will reveal the full extent of what we have done. Daniel Ellsberg was reviled for what he revealed. Now he is considered a hero for telling the truth,  and he supports both Manning and Snowden.

        3. Your assertions that the dead journalists are at fault for their own demise is repugnant.

  7. “the genuine threat of global communism”

    How is a free, egalitarian, stateless, and classless society a threat?  Sure, it’s a threat to the state and the upper class, but it isn’t a threat to you or me.  Moreover, the USSR never even claimed to be a communist society.  No one was even considering the possibility of implementing full communism.

    Rhetoric like that is just evidence that the liberal media speaks for the upper class and not the working class.

    1. could you possibly cut Hayes just a little bit of slack with is wording? If you watch his show regularly, you’d know that this was basically shorthand for “the genuine threat of a major expansion of the type of totalitarian-in-nature, egalitarian-in-rhetoric form of government that the USSR had created and was promoting worldwide”.

      and sure, media of just about every type, including the Socialist Worker Party’s newspaper, speaks to the interests and perspectives of a not-entirely representative subset of society, which is why it is important to have a lot of media, rather than the massively reduced and largely state controlled media establishment of the USSR in the 1950s through the late 1980s. who do you think that their media spoke for?

      1.  The media in the USSR spoke for the military bureaucratic elite, not the working class.

        1. i presume that is subsumed under my remark “media of just about every type [ … ] speaks to the interests and perspectives of a not-entirely representative subset of society“. tell me something i don’t know …

  8. The American public has become flaccid and accepting.

    Even if you’ve never done anything wrong, whatsoever, and under the current system you would never merit so much as a sniff, all the data is there.

    The USA has had some real loons in charge, people I wouldn’t let take care of a lizard.  Lords know what the elected officials are like at lower administrative levels, and what unelected officials are like.

    A shift in temperature of the political landscape will cause a change in the usage of the data.  Benefits will be redistributed – who’s to say who will win, who will lose? Look at the example of Malaysia over the last 50 years – the Malay population have slowly but surely been squeezing all the others out of power, benefits, churches – whatever.

    It doesn’t take much, and it doesn’t have to be dramatic or dangerous, to fundamentally and totally alter the course of history.  Will you be on the losing side?  Will you have to move to another country – perhaps call on that grandfathered Irish passport?

    And given the modern world and the increasing competition with the USA, how long until for instance the Chinese are seen as a general pernicious threat?  What then?  Do American citizens with Chinese ethnicity suffer different outcomes?  To what purpose could all the data be put?

    It doesn’t matter if you’re targeted or not.  What matters is will you ever fall into a category that merits change.  It could be harder to access finance.  It could be ongoing stop and search situations.  It could, under the extreme but not impossible circumstances, mean internship, mean summary execution.

    I’m distressed because I grew up fundamentally believing in the virtue of freedom, and the USA’s unstinting espousal of it.  I was young and naive, but I refuse to allow that ideal to be diminished or removed.

    No other country so vocally supports freedom.  No other country has it woven so deeply into its culture.  Every country should.

    So it’s more distressing than ever to see the crucible of this alternative free world sink into a machiavellian mire.

    1. “No other country so vocally supports freedom.”
      Yeah the US talks a lot about it’s self proclaimed role as Beacon of Freedom but it often does the exact opposite. Just ask the people of Chile or Iran what the US did for their freedom. “Do as I say, not as I do” should be the official motto of the USA.

      “No other country has it woven so deeply into its culture.”
      Spare us your flag waving – the only people still believing this US=freedom bullshit are your fellow countrymen. The last time the US did something for freedom was in WW2. Just see in what a mess this attitude got you.

      1. Bridle your potty mouth.  I’m English.  I’ve lived in the US.

        The liberty phenomenon is almost a marketing ploy, whereby successive administrations rely on the ritual repetitions of the mantra in classrooms and iconic representations all over the nation. This keeps the culture focused on that belief, while the administration seeks some kind of global hegemony.

        The point is – vocal support of freedom means you can be called to account on it when the people feel you’re not practicing it.  What other nations espouse freedom quite so tightly?  Not England, that’s for sure.  Nowhere in Europe.  Not Asia, not Africa.  Not South America.  Maybe Australasia.

        This attitude is about all that’s left of freedom in the modern world, and I will be fucked sideways by a rutting rhinoceros before I yield it.

        1. “fucked sideways”

          potty mouth eh?

          As I argued in a different post above I think this attitude does more harm than good. It leads to complacency were no one bothers to do anything when the government starts to implement “funny” ideas. 

          1. *ah you got me*

            The first line of my initial post:  “The American public has become flaccid and accepting.”

            We’re making that same point.

            The key point is that the USA is a nation founded on liberty and equality.  It has a documented and public foundation.  However mixed up and confused everyone is now, it is inarguable that the basis of the nation and the structure within which it is intended, and should currently operate, is composed of those qualities.

            They’re clear, unambiguous, and available to everyone.

            Prior to the corruption of those principles, various statesmen and leaders expressed the idea that the liberty gained by the creation of the nation must be guarded with vigilance, against enemies both internal and external.

            Complacency has taken over.  But the architecture of freedom is still there.

  9. I’ve heard a lot about how Americans should be concerned, but I haven’t really heard anything about what I as a citizen should *do*. Is there an option besides writing a letter or going off the grid? I don’t expect a letter to change much and I don’t want to go off the grid. 

    1. Write the letter.  Write lots of letters.  Convince lots of people to do the same.  Join petitions.  Demand your rights.  Don’t spend money with companies co-operating with the invasion of privacy.  Send letters to those companies explaining why you changed.

      Look for a candidate who will defend the Constitution.  Back them.It’s not hard – but just don’t do nothing.  That’s what everyone has been doing.

      In five year’s time I’d like to look back and see this as a new civil rights movement.  You’d be doing no more than insisting on the rights the Constitution grants you.

  10. Remember that old mantra “Information wants to be free?”  It’s been around for nearly 30 years and it’s as true today as it was when it was coined in the 80s.  Efforts to control access to information through legislation and DRM have always failed and will always fail.  Anyone who disputes that fact is ignoring the decades of failed attempts that demonstrate the truth of the matter.

    What most people have forgotten or haven’t realized (and won’t like) is that the above includes their information as well.  The cost and effort required to collect your information gets lower every day and there will always be someone who stands to benefit from it enough to make it worthwhile.

    This will never end, no matter how nicely you ask.  Even if you stopped asking and overthrew the government, the replacement would gather the same information.  It’s simply too easy and too valuable to not do it.

    You can’t legislate the problem away. You can either use forms of communication that make it impossible to gather information  or accept that the information you’re giving out will be seen by others.

    1. while this is all mostly true, other than the last paragraph, it doesn’t mean i have be accepting of paying my government to spy on me and my fellow man who might be more compromised through no fault of their own.

  11. Can I point out the inherent contradiction in all of these articles, stacked together?

    Taken *collectively*, they seem to say that we should actually welcome as much surveillance as we can possibly get.


    According to Taleb, the probability of false positives in a data mining operation goes up the more it’s done.  I’m so glad someone said it, because it confirms what all my multivariate statistics teachers hammered into my head for a couple of semesters: infinite tests of infinite data yields infinite crap.  It also yields some true patterns, but–guess what?–you can’t tell which patterns are true amidst all the crap you’ve generated.  That’s why post-hoc tests are so dangerous.

    According to other sources on the Washington Blog, the NSA et al have proved ineffective at actually using all the data they suction.  Effectively, they seem to be money-making machines for a government-industrial complex that is designed to make money and political cover, not to solve the problem of protecting us because –guess what?–it’s impossible to stop either terrorism (c.f. China, Iran, 9/11, Boston, shoe bomber, underwear bomber, etc.).   All the surveillance in the world won’t help people who can’t or won’t act on it.  NSA may well be a hugely expensive fig-leaf for politicians playing security theater.  They know it won’t work, but it sounds good and it will make some of their backers wealthy.  Therefore they do it.

    Even better, the fall of East Germany and the USSR proved that, even when most of the population informs on the rest of the population, you can’t stop a revolution from overthrowing your government.  I’m already willing to predict that, no matter what Putin does with the Russian security services, he and his successors won’t be able to keep a repressive regime alive, any more than the Czar was able to (with a massive security apparatus) or the Soviets were able to (with the descendents of said apparatus).  Not that the KGB were Keystone Kops, but the point is, they always, ultimately, fail.  Good governance is the only thing that keeps governments alive.  Ahem, Washington?

    So, if we want revolution, freedom, and data security, we should welcome a vastly bloated security state, where the analysts are too busy surfing and/or wanking off to the recordings to notice what we’re actually doing, and where there are so many false positives that they stop doing anything but pro forma searches to satisfy managerial quotas.

    The worst thing that could happen is if they dismantled this stupid mess and went back to actual on-the-ground human intelligence.  Then we might have to be worried.  That is, if we’re doing anything to threaten our democracies.  Which, of course, we aren’t.

    Anyway, good luck, and go generate more noise!  Maximize false positives AND false negatives! 

  12. Why should we be worried about state surveillance? Simple – it’s illegal. The state is committing criminal acts and our elected officials seem to be OK with that. That alone should be enough to worry you.

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