Thursday, March 09, 2006

My Kingdom for a Crowbar

Wednesday marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of a break-in to the small Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Media, PA, by a group of activists calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. As recounted by Allan Jalon in the LA Times, the group used a crowbar to get inside and virtually empty the filing cabinets of over 1,000 documents “that revealed years of systematic wiretapping, infiltration and media manipulation designed to suppress dissent.”

Within a few weeks, the documents began to show up — mailed anonymously in manila envelopes with no return address — in the newsrooms of major American newspapers. When the Washington Post received copies, Atty. Gen. John N. Mitchell asked Executive Editor Ben Bradlee not to publish them because disclosure, he said, could "endanger the lives" of people involved in investigations on behalf of the United States.

Nevertheless, the Post broke the first story on March 24, 1971, after receiving an envelope with 14 FBI documents detailing how the bureau had enlisted a local police chief, letter carriers and a switchboard operator at Swarthmore College to spy on campus and black activist groups in the Philadelphia area.

. . . .

To this day, no individual has claimed responsibility for the break-in. The FBI, after building up a six-year, 33,000-page file on the case, couldn't solve it. But it remains one of the most lastingly consequential (although underemphasized) watersheds of political awareness in recent American history, one that poses tough questions even today for our national leaders who argue that fighting foreign enemies requires the government to spy on its citizens. The break-in is far less well known than Daniel Ellsberg's leak of the Pentagon Papers three months later, but in my opinion it deserves equal stature.

Found among the Media documents was a new word, "COINTELPRO," short for the FBI's "secret counterintelligence program," created to investigate and disrupt dissident political groups in the U.S. Under these programs, beginning in 1956, the bureau worked to "enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles," as one COINTELPRO memo put it, "to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox."

The Media documents — along with further revelations about COINTELPRO in the months and years that followed — made it clear that the bureau had gone beyond mere intelligence-gathering to discredit, destabilize and demoralize groups — many of them peaceful, legal civil rights organizations and antiwar groups — that the FBI and Director J. Edgar Hoover found offensive or threatening.

Forgive the extended quote, but Jalon does a great job of telling the story. He writes of how the broad, politicized reach of COINTELPRO “was one of the most frightening revelations of the Media documents,” and points out that these revelations led to investigations by both the House and Senate. It was investigations on intelligence abuses that eventually led to a battery of laws designed to constrain the intelligence community and safeguard the Constitution.

One of those laws (a few years later) was what we have come to know as FISA.

Which brings us to March 8, 2006, another momentous day in the annals of intelligence abuse, for it was on this Wednesday that this Senate’s Intelligence Committee abdicated its responsibilities of oversight. On a strict party-line vote, as the Washington Post reports, the committee rejected a “Democratic proposal to investigate the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program and instead approved establishing, with White House approval, a seven-member panel to oversee the effort.”

“Led” by Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS), the Republicans chose to cave to a heavy dose of pressure from Vice President Cheney, and allow the White House to decide what was meant by Congressional oversight when it came to currently illegal domestic surveillance such that exposed by the NY Times in December. As noted by Dan Froomkin and others, the supposed compromise gives the administration 45 days of do-whatever-the-fuck-you-want time before it has to come before a new mini-committee of four Republicans and three Democrats. At that point, the Attorney General can say that, due to national security concerns, he can’t explain why, but the Administration is going to keep doing what they’ve been doing. Then the four Republicans will vote to “approve” the warrantless spying.

I know that sounds ridiculous, but that’s what the likes of Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) call a compromise.

The ranking Democrat, John D. Rockefeller IV (WV), begged to differ:

The committee is, to put it bluntly, basically under the control of the White House through its chairman. At the direction of the White House, the Republican majority has voted down my motion to have a careful and fact-based review of the National Security Agency's surveillance eavesdropping activities inside the United States.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? The deliberative body, designed by the framers as a check to executive power, has instead become nothing more than a Republican political organ existing to provide cover for its party’s leader.

As Glenn Greenwald observes, it is impossible to compromise on any new “fix” if you haven’t yet investigated how the existing laws have been broken. It was the investigative hearings—prompted by the COINTELPRO revelations—held by Rep. Don Edwards and Sen. Frank Church some thirty-odd years ago that led to the laws we now use to guard against intelligence abuses.

Or, at least, used to use to guard against abuses. The Administration has run roughshod over those laws, and, without an independent legislature, will continue to do so. In fact, as Greenwald astutely remarks:

Congress already enacted legislation regulating the Government's eavesdropping activities. They called that law FISA. The Administration has been violating that law because they believe they have the power to do so, because they think that Congress has no power to regulate or limit the President's eavesdropping activities. Since the White House still believes it has this power, isn't passing another law facially moronic, given that the Administration has already said that they are free to violate whatever Congressional laws they want which purport to regulate eavesdropping?

Which means that any machinations by a Republican Congress are really just window dressing—rearranging the deck chairs on a ship of state exhibiting all the hubris embodied by the Titanic.

Who then, is left to steer us away from more icebergs, or, to run this metaphor into the ground, at least man the lifeboats? Traditionally, we would have the so-called fourth estate, the press, to give guidance, keep the electorate informed and inflamed, and do some of the solid investigative work that Congress has abandoned.

Alas, the New York Times, unlike the Washington Post 35 years earlier, did sit on their story at the request of the DoJ, publishing only when James Risen’s book was about to scoop his paper. And, that initial, delayed bombshell aside, I have not seen the corporate media asking the hard questions of the Administration—nor have I seen them reinforcing the point that no matter what law is “crafted” going forward, the existing laws have already been broken.

Instead, I see something closer to the White House’s dictated frame: “How necessary are these programs to protect the security of the American people? How much of our civil rights should we give up in order to be safe?” It’s a false debate, but it seems to be the debate we’re having.

Of course, we could at least hope the loyal opposition would make some noise. Howard Dean did threaten that if the Democrats regained control of Congress, the subpoenas would fly. But for every Howard Dean, there is a mush-mouth like Bob Shrum, Kerry’s senior political advisor in 2004:

True, we don't have a clear message on the war. We have differences internally. It won't matter. This election will be a referendum on Bush, not what the Democrats will do.

Thanks Bob, that’s the kind of clear thinking that really gives the party something to stand for—the kind of genius behind the genius behind “I voted for the bill before I voted against it.”

No, sadly, I am not putting a lot of faith in the “liberal” media or the Democratic Party—at least not yet. And that is why I look again to Jalon’s piece:

It is tragic when people lose faith in their government to the extent that they feel they must break laws to expose corruption.

But a war that had been started and sustained by lies had gone on for years. And a government had betrayed its citizens, manipulating their fear to strengthen its grip on power.

He is, of course, referring to the Media break-in of 1971, but the message is not lost on 2006. Maybe it is time for another crowbar.


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