I have written before about the secret COINTELPRO spying program that was set up by the FBI in 1956 against those people the government considered enemies, although they were mostly engaged is legitimate political activities. As now, the covered up its spying and other wrongdoing in thick layers of secrecy that enabled it to brazenly lie to the public about its activities, while simultaneously saying that they had to protect the country from its enemies, which in those Cold War days were the Dirty Reds. One feature of authoritarian states is that they need an enemy, external or internal, all the time in order to justify their policies and will manufacture one if necessary.
The COINTELPRO program was revealed in 1971 by people who broke into a local FBI office, got hold of secret documents revealing that and other programs, and released them to the media. This led to widespread outrage and investigations. The FBI was furious and launched a massive search to find the culprits but amazingly, was never able to identify or catch a single one of them.
Yesterday comes a report that five of the eight people who originally broke in have stepped forward and identified themselves. The stature of limitations for the various offenses for which they might have been charged expired in 1981 so they are safe from prosecution.
Why come forward now? Because they see what they did as a precursor to Edward Snowden’s actions, that they too were driven by the desire to expose secret government wrongdoing and lying, and that the Nixon government then reacted the way the Obama government is doing now, demanding the return of the documents as stolen government property and going all out to capture and punish harshly those responsible for revealing its wrongdoing
Interestingly, although they sent the files to several papers, it is believed that the New York Times and Los Angeles Times returned the files to the government, leaving it to the Washington Post to publish the stories first.
Bonnie Raines, one of those involved in the burglaries, has a fascinating first-person account of how they did what the did and got away with it. You have to remember that these people were just ordinary folk, were not professional crooks. For this motley group to burglarize FBI offices and not get caught seems incredible.
She, like Snowden, was just 29 at the time and she and her husband had three children and had a lot to lose if they got caught. They strongly suspected what the government was up to but they needed documentary proof of it to be believed. She concludes:
Democracy needs whistleblowers. Snowden was in a position to reveal things that nobody could dispute. He has performed a legitimate, necessary service. Unlike us, he revealed his own identity, and as a result, he’s sacrificed a lot.
On our part, you could accuse us of being criminals – and Hoover did just that: he was apoplectic and sent 200 agents to try and find us in Philadelphia. “Find me that woman!” he screamed at them.
But to us there didn’t seem to be an alternative at that point. No one was going to be hurt. We hoped for the outcomes that we wanted. We knew, of course, that we were breaking law, but I think that sometimes you have to break laws in order to reveal something dangerous, and to put a stop to it.
I still worry a great deal about the state of our democracy. Back in 1971, the country was so divided, there was so much foment, but there was also much determination to change things, and people felt empowered to do so.
Nowadays, the country is divided once again, but I don’t see much concern about the abuses that are happening today, like the surveillance of mosques in America, using agent provocateurs. I hear people say, “I don’t care,” the government can do what it needs to do as long as it protects me from terrorism …” To me, that’s giving the authorities blanket permission to cross the line again.
Dissent and accountability are the lifeblood of democracy, yet people now think they just have to roll over in the name of “anti-terrorism”. Members of government thinks it can lie to us about it, and that they can lie to Congress. That concerns me for the future of my children and grandchildren, and that too makes me feel I can talk about, at my age, doing something as drastic as breaking-in to an FBI office in the search for truth.
This new story will put Obama supporters and liberal Democrats in general in more of a quandary. Many look on Nixon and Hoover as evil villains and those who defied them them as heroes, while they see Obama as a good man and those who defy him, like Snowden, as criminals to be punished. So when people like Daniel Ellsberg and Bonnie Raines strongly identify with Snowden and his actions, this makes it awkward.
Raines’s’ stirring story shows that idealistic young people can find ways to circumvent the authoritarian state. I hope this inspires yet more of them.