During the last three months, we have been learning a great deal about massive and continuing surveillance of the phone calls and emails of hundreds of millions of Americans by "our" government.
For me, this has had a strong personal kick to it. To explain why, I have to share with you a story that began 45 years ago.
Beginning in 1968, the FBI undertook an effort called "COINTELPRO" -- short for "counter-intelligence program" -- that used such illegal means as warrantless wiretapping, theft, forgery, agents provocateurs, and worse -- to disrupt the lawful civil rights, Black-liberation, and antiwar movements.
It was directly supervised by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, with orders to keep it totally secret within the FBI.
But in 1975, post-Watergate investigations by a Senate committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church made COINTELPRO widely known
So in 1976, nine Washingtonians -- including me -- sued the FBI for violating our First Amendment right "of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
Our lawsuit won.
Years later, it became the subject of one chapter of a book by Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy -- yes, the Caroline Kennedy who as I write has just been appointed Ambassador-designate to Japan.
You can read the whole chapter here.
The book is about the real-life importance of various provisions of the Bill of Rights in protecting the rights of grass-roots American citizens. Its title is In Our Defense: The Bill of Rights in Action (Morrow, 1991).
When they were writing, Kennedy and Alderman were law students at Columbia University. They interviewed me at a lunch booth in a crowded restaurant near Columbia. I was startled to find I could hardly speak to answer their questions without coming to the verge of tears.
Why? I wasn't sure then and am not sure now. Maybe the memory of Caroline as a little girl when her father was killed? Maybe sadness over all the deaths and losses, wars and disasters, of the thirty years since then?
We won our case-- an unprecedented decision that robbing Americans of their constitutional rights, even if they don't suffer any arithmetical financial losses, requires the government to pay damages.
When the FBI appealed, we won again. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals' unanimous decision in 1986 included then Judge Antonin Scalia -- a fact that astonished me then and still does.
The damages I received were $8,000. With $2,000 I bought my first computer, for use in The Shalom Center's work. To each of my two children I offered a $3,000 grant to support them for a year if they chose to do political activist work of their choice.
I told them the gift should be understood as the J. Edgar Hoover Memorial Fellowships
Both of them agreed. David Waskow spent the year as a community organizer for tenants' rights, and worked for years afterward as a community organizer. He is now an activist policy expert on climate issues. Shoshana Waskow spent a year working at a shelter for battered women. She is now a pediatrician.
The first lines of the Alterman-Kennedy chapter are these:
By August of 1969, Abe Bloom and Arthur Waskow were spending almost every night planning a massive demonstration against the Vietnam War scheduled for November 15 in Washington, DC. Bloom, an electronics engineer by training, was treasurer of the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (New Mobe). Waskow, a PhD historian and scholar, was a member of the New Mobe steering committee. Like Bloom, he had attended or spoken at every major demonstration in Washington in the 1960s...
Its last lines are these:
When it comes to the future, "I am inclined to guarantee that you will never see a resumption of that type of activity by the FBI again," Charles Brennan [chief of the Internal Security Section of the FBI] said at trial. "The delineation of what the FBI can or can't do is very clear, and the Department of Justice has taken much firmer control over the FBI so that it is not going to operate in the autonomous manner that it did under Mr. Hoover."
Tina Hobson [one of the activist plaintiffs] is not so sanguine. "I think that since our case is over, somebody else better follow. You have to try to create a government that's close to your heart's desire. If you don't do it, somebody else will."'
Of course, Tina Hobson has proved to be correct. One generation later, the NSA, CIA, and FBI have been penetrating the private lives of almost all Americans.
For them, and the Administrations that control them, "freedom" is what only the government has -- freedom to poke around in people's lives.
"Freedom" is not what the Occupy demonstrators had when a concerted national police response, used provocateurs to incite violence, infiltrators to stymie decision-making, and finally outright force to expel them from public parks. "The right of the people peaceably to assemble" be damned.
And "freedom" is not what Bradley Manning had when the government tortured him with months of solitary confinement, nor what he has now as "our" government does its best to throw him in prison for life. Nor what Edward Snowden has as the US government charges him too with espionage, and bribes or blackmails most of the world's governments to deny him political asylum.
And "freedom" is not what journalists and whistleblowers have while the Obama administration charges them under the Espionage Act of 1917 -- twice as many charged as all presidents from Woodrow Wilson to George Bush II, put together, had charged under that Act.
The U.S. government has claimed that these invasive techniques are essential to prevent terrorist attacks, and even claimed that last week's emergency response to al Qaeda threats was possible only because of this surveillance.
But we already know that the threats came from a specific al Qaeda leader, and it did not take guzzling up billions of everyone's emails to get a warrant based on "probable cause" to specifically listen to him.
That is what the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States requires. The Bill of Rights, "in our defense."
Freedom denied to whistle-blowers and journalists is Freedom denied to us all -- because without the information they give us, we cannot either give or refuse "the consent of the governed" (see Jefferson et al, "Declaration of Independence," 1776) to what our government is doing.
I have said that the climate crisis and its danger to the whole web of life on Earth is the most crucial issue that we face.
But we cannot face it, or any other issue, if we allow the power-hungry pharaohs of our day -- whether they are called "corporate" or "governmental" -- to shut down our freedoms of criticism, petition, assembly, and the vote. To threaten us with prison or bludgeon us with money.
The only memorial J. Edgar Hoover deserves is the passion and compassion of free citizens -- together.
So that is why I decided to share this story with you.