What would you say if the U.S. Government were illegally surveilling and harassing Albert Einstein or Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. today? Most Americans would probably not be ok with that. But under continuing forms of the same old domestic intelligence operations that actually did result in that very surveillance and harassment, the U.S. Government continues actively subverting American politics today.
Domestic federal intelligence operations subvert lawful political expression including freedom of speech and freedom of the press — and pack federal agencies with political cohorts inclined to go along with that subversion. This is a Constitutional crisis, precisely because it’s nothing new. It’s a repeating pathology that requires structural change in the interests of security and liberty alike.
Throughout the twentieth century, U.S. federal security agencies including the CIA, FBI, and NSA have often taken a broad view of their mandate to protect the state from domestic subversion. They must not have heard about Thomas Jefferson’s idea that we should have a new government every generation, to keep tyrants from seizing power from the people.
But the people get it. That’s why, every time revelations about these programs come to light, public outcry generates congressional inquiries. The problem with those inquiries is that they don’t then generate structural changes that might keep the problem from repeating.
Alphabet Soup Misbehavior
After two former CIA officers broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in 1972, Seymour Hersh wrote about Operation CHAOS, the larger domestic CIA operation the American public learned about during the Watergate scandal. Operation CHAOS targeted domestic anti-war activists and other political opponents of conservative leaders with illegal, retaliatory surveillance and psychological operations (psyops).
The public response to Operation CHAOS was immediate and forceful. Congress impeached President Nixon, who resigned rather than let Congress proceed in the post-impeachment process to remove him from office. Representative Bella Abzug held a hearing on Government Information and Individual Rights. Senator Frank Church chaired a committee investigating illegal CIA, FBI, and NSA domestic intelligence activities. The responders were a who’s who of leading lights whose legacies shine on today.
More people will recognize another one of those groups of responders. Following Nixon’s resignation, Vice President Rockefeller launched the Rockefeller Commission on domestic CIA activities. Then-Director of Central Intelligence George H.W. Bush said the Rockefeller Commission showed Operation CHAOS improperly targeted legitimate political dissenters. Then-Deputy White House Chief of Staff Dick Cheney said Rockefeller conducted his investigation to avoid further congressional checks on the executive. Later, when George H.W. Bush became President — and even later, when Dick Cheney became Vice President — they both took additional measures to increase that same, unaccountable executive branch (or “unitary executive”) power. This despite its history of twentieth-century abuses to suppress legitimate domestic political debate around progressive issues like peace and racial equality.
For its part, the FBI has systematically repressed communist, anarchist, and labor movements in operations often lumped together under COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program), surveilling and attempting to discredit domestic political opponents including Albert Einstein (who opposed the nuclear arms race) and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who opposed Jim Crow laws). And the NSA might still be housing illegal domestic mass surveillance programs that include dragnet (i.e., collect it all) email and phone data collection practices revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden and subsequently ruled illegal in federal court.
As Mark Twain noted, history rhymes. Conservative political capture of the federal intelligence apparatus is nothing new. But domestic information control, and retaliatory surveillance and psyops for political opponents who threaten to reveal it, are illegal and immoral. So it would be a big deal if Operation CHAOS had continued after Watergate, under a different name.
And that’s exactly what seems to be happening.