Latest FBI Political Spying Scandal Has Disturbing Echoes With 1960s War on Anti-War, Black Power Protests

By Chip Gibbons: Defending Rights & Dissent

So long as protests are treated as national security and intelligence matters, national security and intelligence tools will be used to endanger political expression.

Over at the Defending Rights & Dissent Substack, I commented on how the latest breaking news about the FBI’s misuse of foreign intelligence tools echoes one of the worst abuses of the Hoover-era. – Chip Gibbons

In 1967, the Johnson Administration forced the Department of the Army, Department of Justice, and FBI to form a special unit on civil disturbances. One of the key tasks of this unit was proving a connection between foreign governments (namely, the Soviet Union, Cuba, and China) and the antiwar and civil rights protests and accompanying rebellions on college campuses and major cities. Such protests, government officials reasoned, could not be the product of abhorrence at racism or the Vietnam War, but the result of malign foreign influence.

In order to find this supposed foreign connection, the unit turned to the then-little discussed National Security Agency. The NSA, as the Church Committee would explain in a report on its surveillance of Americans, was essentially a “service” agency who supplied intelligence at the requests of “consumer” agencies. At some point in the early 1960s, at the request of the FBI the NSA developed its first “watch list” targeting US citizens who traveled to Cuba (or before the embargo, companies who did business with Cuba). The NSA was also invited to gather information on US citizens by the Secret Service who consulted with the NSA about threats to the president.

But the watch listing system grew dramatically as the NSA was enlisted for the first time to assist with intelligence gathering related to “civil disturbance” in the US. In 1967, US Army Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence General William Yarborough requested the NSA find proof of foreign influence on the “peace” and “Black Power” movements. Documents supplied to the Church Committee and declassified in the last half decade under the JFK Assassination Records Act include multiple direct requests from J. Edgar Hoover to the NSA director from intelligence on “Black Extremists,” “Black Nationalists,” and “racial matters.” In what became Project Minaret, the NSA placed around 1,200 Americans, including Martin Luther King Jr., on a watchlist. The vast majority of these names came from the FBI.

FBI letter

Earlier today, the Washington Post reported new revelations about the FBI that mirror these 1960s and 1970s practices that so horrified Congress and the public when they were exposed. Under §702, the NSA intercepts and stores communications. This program is not supposed to deliberately target US citizens, but if the communications “incidentally” collected the NSA can store them so that other agencies, including the FBI can search them. The FBI claims that a “backdoor search” exception to the Fourth Amendment allows them to do so even without a warrant.

According to the Washington Post, the FBI searched that database for information on individuals arrested “in connection with civil unrests and protests between approximately May 30, and June 18, 2020,” a clear reference to George Floyd protests. In addition to searching for Black Lives Matter protesters, the FBI also queried the database about US citizens to find evidence of foreign influence on January 6.

The surveillance power in question, §702, comes up for renewal this year. It is very clear that Congress should not extend this power further. It also needs to make clear there are no backdoor search exceptions to the Fourth Amendment and that the FBI needs a warrant to access intercepted communications from and about US citizens. But it is also time to fundamentally rethink the FBI’s counterterrorism programs. During the Hoover years, the FBI gathered massive amounts of information about Black Americans under an investigative designation for “racial matters.” That designation still exists, but its name was changed to “civil disturbances.” Investigations under this designation, like investigations of violations of federal anti-riot statutes, are deemed counter terrorism investigations. This is a direct legacy of Hoover’s own justifications for gathering intelligence on anti-war and civil rights movements. So long as protests, even those where unlawful conduct may take place, are treated as national security and intelligence matters, national security and intelligence tools will be used, endangering the right to political expression.