Agents of Change
National security incidents 42 years apart remind us of the important roles individuals play in preserving our freedoms
By Robert M. Nelson 06/05/2014
With summer upon us, and presidential elections two years away, we can anticipate the release of books by White House aspirants intended to enhance their public stature as they move into their respective campaigns.
If the past repeats itself, these books can make for a lot of boring summer reading. Prospective candidates are simply competing for the job of managing the current state of affairs by accommodating the most minimal change. No thrills here.
This begs two questions: Who are the agents of inspirational social change originating from outside political office? Would their narratives make for more interesting summer reading than those of presidential candidates?
Significant historical change often originates from outside the narrow confines of the electoral political process. Consider which came first: The lunch counter sit-ins or the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act? The agents of change begin the process at the grassroots — likely in the absence of formal political leadership. The politicians begin to play a role after the public demands change.
Change is accomplished by small groups of dedicated people or even a single person acting alone. The stories behind the actions of such people make for exciting, remarkable and fascinating reading.
This summer there are two books available that describe monumental changes that resulted from the actions of a few people or a lone individual. The descriptions of two events that occurred 42 years apart in time have profound relevance to our current crisis growing out of unconstrained government violations of our intimate personal privacy. The stories have remarkable and startling similarities despite the fact that they are separated by more than four decades.
Betty Medsger of the Washington Post sets the story in her book, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.” In 1971, eight anti-Vietnam war activists broke into the local office of the FBI in the little town of Media, Pa., just outside Philadelphia. They carted off, and released to the press, thousands of documents that described in intricate detail numerous illegal actions perpetrated by agents of the FBI against law abiding citizens. The release of these documents led to the unearthing of the secret COINTELPRO operation under which the FBI intruded into and disrupted the lives of thousands of Americans involved in perfectly legal activities, such as demonstrating opposition to the Vietnam War or supporting equal rights for women and minorities. COINTELPRO actions included harassing the civil rights leader Martin Luther King in a futile effort to coerce him to take his own life. The FBI also created the circumstances for the murder of Chicago Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton.
As a consequence of the Media revelations, US Sen. Frank Church chaired a famous series of investigative hearings which ultimately led to a major overhaul of FBI operations. Important reforms were enacted. The FBI was restrained for several decades. Unfortunately, most of these reforms were compromised or lost entirely in the wake of 9/11.
Despite an intense hunt by the FBI, the identities of the Media burglars remained unknown — until now. Medsger was one of the journalists who received the documents and broke the story four decades ago. Even she did not know who sent them to her until recently.
After releasing the FBI files, the group that carried out the heist went on living perfectly normal lives, raising families, engaging in their chosen jobs, and currently are caring for and loving their grandchildren. They grew apart both philosophically and geographically, but each person represents the essence of what we would call the best of American values. They did the right thing.
Medsger’s details of the FBI robbery in Media are the perfect setup piece for the current story of great interest — the revelations of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The details of the Snowden document release have now been chronicled in journalist Glenn Greenwald’s just-released book, “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the U.S. Surveillance State.”
A year has now passed since Greenwald first began releasing documents provided to him and filmmaker Laura Poitras by Snowden. The deluge began with the appearance of the first Greenwald story in The Guardian, a year ago this week, which described the NSA’s secret order against Verizon Communications requiring them to turn over all information regarding the phone records of every call on their phone network. As the first wave hit, Greenwald followed with another story that described the NSA’s gathering of all electronic communication records of every US citizen — conducted under its PRISM program. These initial releases were followed by a flood of astounding revelations in which we learned of numerous gross illegalities committed at the hands of the NSA, including spying on not only our personal cell phones but the personal cell phones of allied foreign leaders, and also industrial espionage into the business affairs of foreign corporations.
The apologists for the national security state were caught off guard by the breadth of the revelations. US Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, initially argued that the public should have no concern if they have done nothing to hide. The leaders of the information traffickers like Google’s Eric Schmidt echoed Feinstein’s lead. However, the relentless pace of the release of the NSA document trove continued until Greenwald revealed that our national security agencies had intentionally lied to Feinstein herself — their greatest defender. The apologists of the national security state were caught flatfooted. They have been backpedaling for a year and are now regrouping, offering timid legislative palliatives that create an illusion of relief.
The Common Dynamic
The exposure of the vast expanse of illegal actions by our national security apparatus, despite claims that the NSA was closely monitored by congressional oversight, has renewed a debate started 42 years earlier by the Media, Pa. disclosures. The two events are inextricably intertwined. Therefore, reading both the Media and Snowden stories side by side makes for a remarkable experience. It reveals both incredible similarities and profound differences in the central characters. Despite these differences, they took the same course of action.
The differences are obvious. The Media burglars were community activists who had a long history of challenging government policy in Southeast Asia. They came from outside the system. Snowden came from the opposite direction. He believed in the system and joined it with enthusiasm. He wanted to fight terrorism.
The two paths from opposite directions converged into the undertaking of a common act — the release of massive amounts of information to the public that disclosed our government engaged in activities that more closely resembled those of East Germany’s Stasi than those inspired by James Madison and the Bill of Rights.
The similarities in both cases are also obvious. Information vital to the public decision-making process had been deliberately withheld from the public by officials at the highest level of government. The Constitution, with its important privacy protections, had been violated by the very persons charged with the task of upholding it. Current Attorney General Eric Holder and his many predecessors stretching back to John Mitchell, men whose tenures are separated by a half-century, and whose narratives are separated by light years in space, are shown to have a common character flaw, a profound lack of respect and trust in the public they are sworn to serve.
The stories that led to the release of the information in both cases describe the harrowing anguish of individuals, often alone and isolated, trying to find a moral compass, in the midst of a raging storm. In both instances, the disclosure of the documents was successful. However, in each instance there was a far greater probability that the disclosure effort would fail rather than succeed. Both Medsger and Greenwald describe the incredible stories of how this information came to be released. Society is indeed lucky that the releases were successful.
The Heist, Part One
The Media break-in was almost a complete shot in the dark. The burglars had no idea of the detailed content of what was in the FBI office. However, their long experience of harassment while involved in the anti-war movement gave them cause that the FBI was involved. They devised a plan to break in and empty the entire set of files. One of the group, Bonnie Raines, cased the office posing as a graduating college student seeking employment with the FBI. Another in the group, David Forsythe, also cruised the office. He saw only one simple lock on the office door. He enrolled in a correspondence course to become locksmith (No online searches on lock picking four decades ago). He mastered the art opening the lock he saw. The group selected March 8, 1971 as the night for the robbery. It would ensure maximum distraction. It was the night of the famous Muhammad Ali - Joe Frazer fight.
The plan was well-rehearsed. Bonnie’s husband John would drive the getaway car, the family’s personal station wagon. The others would arrive after Forsythe picked the lock, shortly after the big heavyweight fight was scheduled to begin. From the start, things started falling apart. Forsythe arrived first, only to discover there was not one but two locks on the door. He had not noticed the second one on his earlier scouting expedition. He had no clue how to pick it. He left to discuss an improvised strategy with his accomplices. Ultimately, they simply forced the door. This caused a great time delay; they had assumed the fight would have long been underway. However, good luck set in. They failed to account for the lengthy preliminary schedule of events preceding the fight. The convergence of errors was an example of the great luck that permitted them to pull off the heist.
By dawn the entire contents of the FBI office in Media had been moved to a safe house. Over the next several weeks, the group organized and photocopied the documents and sent them to the press. They then agreed to part company and never interact closely again.
The Heist, Part Two
Greenwald reveals that Snowden underwent a major transformation when he began to discover that the NSA was deliberately violating the law. It has recently been revealed by the NSA that Snowden challenged the legal foundation of what the NSA was doing. He wrote to superiors asking for the hierarchy of authority on which the NSA’s apparently illegal actions were based. He was fully aware that there was no such law permitting the NSA to do these things. The NSA replied that the secret executive orders of the president had the equivalent authority of law. This response has historically been given by perpetrators of rogue acts by the national security apparatus. They repeatedly argue that secret executive orders, un-reviewed by elected legislators or the courts, are the equivalent of the law.
Snowden thought this through in private; his principal interactions were based external influences from his use of the Web. While online, he discovered the writings of Greenwald and decided to make contact. Greenwald’s description of the contact between a celebrated journalist and a lone intelligence worker buried within the bowels of the NSA is indeed remarkable. There were many chances that the effort would fail, that Snowden would be caught.
The main problem Snowden faced was how to get material in electronic form to Greenwald when he fully understood that the NSA was eavesdropping on all electronic activities. He needed an encrypted channel of communication. He had to convince Greenwald to install cumbersome encryption software on his computer so that he could send the information in encoded form. Greenwald describes how he repeatedly delayed the installation of the encryption software. He was too busy. Undeterred, Snowden approached Poitras the filmmaker in Berlin. Snowden was aware that Greenwald had played a major role in exposing the many instances of Poitras’ harassment by US border authorities because of her filmmaking activities. She had been frequently searched and interrogated by agents as she entered and left the United States. Snowden turned to Poitras and asked her to help. At Snowden’s urging, Poitras installed the encryption software on her computer and read what Snowden wanted to disclose. She immediately became aware of the importance of the material. She convinced Greenwald to encrypt his communications. Greenwald describes his repeated bumbling of Snowden’s initial communications attempts in detail. He is delightfully self-effacing. After describing the nearly fumbled initial contact he concludes, “That’s how close I came to blowing off one of the largest and most consequential national security leaks in US history.”
The outcome of the Media break-in is well known. The people who released the files continued to live as the normal Americans they were for the next four decades. They typify true patriotic values that best describe Americans as they should be. Their actions caused the passage of significant legislation that protected the privacy of all citizens for decades. The snooping agencies slowly eroded these protections with the help of the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations. But they remained important until the morning of 9/11. After that date, all was lost.
Snowden today remains in a tenuous exile in Russia, a country with its own history of excessive national security obsession. However, he says he is free to communicate with his friends and legal advisers. In that sense, he has far more freedom in Russia than Chelsea Manning ever did once she released the documents to Wikileaks.
The NSA’s defenders continue their attempts to discredit Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras and others who provide support to their actions. Currently, a weak batch of largely cosmetic legislation has been offered for consideration by the next Congress.
Important questions remain unanswered. Will Feinstein be replaced in the next Congress by someone who has a modicum of respect for civil liberties? Will Ron Wyden or Mark Udall be able to step into the shoes once worn by Frank Church? Will Edward Snowden be able to return to his homeland, hopefully to the hero’s welcome he deserves, and will he be able to raise his children and grandchildren following the path of Bonnie and John Raines and their colleagues four decades earlier?
Sen. Church, we need you again!
Robert M. Nelson is a NASA scientist who resides in Pasadena. In 2007, while employed at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he was the lead plaintiff in an unsuccessful Supreme Court challenge to a post-9/11 national security directive by President Bush which authorized unrestricted and unconstrained intrusions into the intimate personal details of the lives of JPL employees. He subsequently left JPL and is now a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. He is also a member of the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The views he represents are his own.
“The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI,” by Betty Medsger; Illustrated; 596 pages; Alfred A. Knopf; $29.95.
“No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State,” by Glenn Greenwald; 259 pages; Metropolitan Books; $27