OXFORD—They wanted to know about your phone calls, your conversations, your meetings with others, your political leanings, your opinions, your friends, your confidantes, your extracurricular activities, your religious beliefs, your sexual habits.
Armed with such information, they knew how to deal with you if they considered you a troublemaker. At the least, they could make sure the whole world knew your every secret.
Who were they? In Mississippi between 1956 and 1977, they were the spies working for the state Sovereignty Commission, the taxpayer-funded, segregationist agency that targeted civil rights activists and sympathizers. In East Germany during the Cold War, they were the spies with the Stasi, the secret security agency that compiled 6.5 million files on one out of every three of East Germany's 16 million citizens, enough to fill 120 miles of shelves.
Today, they are the employees of the National Security Agency and its contractors, and they not only spy on U.S. citizens, but even the leaders of foreign countries. Among their files are the conversations German Chancellor Angela Merkel had on her cell phone. Why do we know these things? Thank Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower now under the protection of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin in Russia.
Mississippians and southerners in general should appreciate the importance of North Carolina native Snowden's actions, the topic of a March 19 panel discussion at the University of Mississippi that included me as a panelist along with former FBI agent and ACLU senior counsel Mike German, now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, and Ole Miss School of Law Senior Associate Dean Matthew Hall. Ole Miss Honors College Dean Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales was moderator.
Former top NSA executive Bill Binney, the creator of the agency's surveillance program, says widespread government spying on regular citizens has turned the United States into a police state. Many of the NSA's files go directly to law enforcement agencies to assist them in gathering information—without warrants—that can be used in legal cases against citizens, he says.
Is this why the United States has become the world's largest gulag, accounting for 25 percent of the globe's incarcerated population? One out of every four adult Americans now has a police record. Louisiana and Mississippi lead the nation in putting people behind bars.
In the Ole Miss panel discussion, Matthew Hall argued that Snowden is a villain because he became a fugitive after leaking the NSA files, rather than staying here to face the music like Daniel Ellsberg after leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971. That argument fails to consider what has become of post-9-11 America. Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private whose funneling of government documents to WikiLeaks exposed the extent of civilian casualties from U.S. attacks in Afghanistan, as well as the failure of U.S. counterinsurgency programs there, spent nearly a year in solitary confinement before his trial.
No state came closer than Mississippi to becoming a "police state" in the 1960s, and it was a model for much of the rest of the racist South. It investigated, intimidated and threatened anyone challenging the status quo. It interfered with murder cases against white supremacists, let loose police bullies on dissidents, and compromised many of the journalists who should have been exposing its evils. Mississippians can see it all for themselves in the more than 138,000 pages of Sovereignty Commission documents that were ultimately released (see jfp.ms/msc).
In the wake of the NSA scandal, a wavering President Obama has both defended the agency and called for greater oversight of its powers. Snowden remains a fugitive with more than a few politicians still calling for his head. Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley, will spend much of the rest of her life in prison. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is a wanted man whom U.S. officials would love to see behind bars.
Memory fades across much of the world of the days when the FBI watched Martin Luther King Jr.'s every step, bugging his phone and photographing his whereabouts in the hope of catching him in a compromising position that would take him out forever and end his threat to the powers that be. Even the FBI itself now admits on its web site that its disgraced COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) spy network of the 1960s "was rightfully criticized ... for abridging First Amendment rights."
Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist, columnist and journalism professor at the University of Mississippi.