Friday, June 14, 2013

The Slippery Slope

Caption: A protest against the Vietnam War in Washington, DC, April 24, 1971.

Image credit: Leena Krohn/Wikimedia

In a guest editorial for Florida Today, former Army officer Peter Stitt wrote about his experiences while assigned to the unit that spied on anti-war groups during the Vietnam War. Chris Pyle, the officer who blew the whistle on this illegal surveillance, described his introduction to the program this way on Democracy Now:

I received a briefing at the U.S. Army Intelligence Command that showed me the extent of the surveillance system. There were about 1,500 Army agents in plain clothes watching every demonstration in the United States of 20 people or more. There was also a records system in a giant warehouse on about six million people. I disclosed the existence of that surveillance and then recruited 125 of the Army’s counterintelligence agents to tell what they knew about the spying to Congress, the courts and the press. As a result of those disclosures and the congressional hearings, the entire U.S. Army Intelligence Command was abolished.

Chris Pyle, Whistleblower on Domestic Spying in 70s, Says Be Wary of Attacks on NSA’s Critics

Peter Stitt describes how things went while he was a part of the Army Intelligence Command unit:

I did not know the work was illegal. That would be revealed by another intelligence captain [Chris Pyle] who turned whistle-blower. Until the news media confronted our government and citizen outrage forced change, we amassed data on countless, improperly targeted U.S. citizens.


The initial rationale for Army Intelligence spying on civilians seemed noble enough. The occasional need for military troops to deal with domestic disturbances puts solders in harm’s way. Ergo commanders should keep track of violent people. Call them dissidents. Spy and report on these evil doers.

Once spying began, other organizers became suspects, then the frequent companions of these organizers. First civil disobedience and then peaceful protest became suspect. The dissident became defined by his or her state of mind, not actions. Eventually, we found our towns and campuses and churches were full of so-called dissidents. And we went to those places and spied on innocent people.

Snooping on citizens

Soldiers are supposed to not obey illegal orders, but there are lots of reasons why it's often unrealistic to expect that they will. Stitt's recollection shows one of the reasons - most Americans are not lawyers, and many are ignorant of what the Constitution and federal law say.

Plus, as he notes, it's easy for a program like this, conducted in secret with rather nebulous goals to begin with, to morph into something else. When that program has something to do with investigating peoples' loyalties or politics, that effort can quickly turn into a witch hunt. As Stitt concludes:

Please believe me: I have watched this inexorable progression in the intelligence community. No gaggle of oversight committees can alter this phenomenon. And later, when we hear from the next whistle-blower, we will be told this has been going on for years, gosh even in prior administrations. So everything is OK, folks. Move along, nothing to see here.

Eventually your right to privacy will be a token idea. Are we so terrorized that we willingly give away precious freedoms? This NSA overreach must not continue.

Snooping on citizens

Pyle's whistle blowing led to the Church Committee Hearings, which in turn created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. That act was recently amended, and I would say weakened, toward the end of the Bush Administration. It didn't take us long to forget the lesson Pyle and Stitt are trying to remind us about.

The NSA's current surveillance programs that have been disclosed in the last week or so are similar enough to the Army's dissident surveillance program of the 1970s that it should stand as a warning that such programs carry too great a risk. Just like the Vietnam-era surveillance, the NSA's is essentially an open-ended mission. However incidentally, it targets citizens of this country, which makes it potentially a means of government control of its citizens. It is carried on in secret, with no oversight worth mentioning. That it will get out of control is a foregone conclusion, assuming it hasn't already.

As Mark Twain once observed, history doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme. The means of surveillance are different, as is the perceived threat. Still, this is another lesson that we should have learned from Vietnam: that ultimately, we can't trust our government if it's not doing what it's doing right in front of our eyes. The slippery slope of NSA surveillance will lead us to the same place that we were headed in the 1970s, before principled individuals prevailed.

There's no guarantee they'll win this time.

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