Warrantless surveillance and the new Coretta Scott King disclosures

The FBI's past warrantless surveillance abuses demonstrate the severe dangers of the FISA bill just passed by the Democratic Congress.

Published August 31, 2007 11:39AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

The severe dangers from allowing the government to engage in surveillance of Americans' communications with no oversight ought to be self-evident. That government leaders will abuse unchecked powers is the most basic premise of our country since its founding, and independently, the dangers are obvious.

But reasoning of that sort is not even required to appreciate and convey to Americans why oversight-less spying powers of the type the Congress just vested in the Bush administration are so pernicious. There is a long and recent record demonstrating that surveillance powers, when exercised against Americans without oversight, will be abused. And that record just got longer and more disturbing, thanks to a superb investigative report from a local television news station in Houston, which obtained the previously secret FBI surveillance file on Coretta Scott King.

Here is what happens when we allow our political leaders to spy on Americans with no oversight:

Comprised of nearly 500 pages, with some of those documents partially or totally censored, the intelligence file paints a disturbing picture.

For example: The FBI very closely spied and did surveillance on Scott King for years, keeping close track of her public appearances, speeches and especially anytime she traveled. . . .

But KHOU has found that even after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the FBI's Scott King file shows the Bureau actually intensified their spying and surveillance of the new widow.

The newly released documents show the Bureau closely tracked and scrutinized Scott King's comings and goings, including public appearances ("Mrs. King is due to arrive...at 10:40 a.m.") and what was said there. Agents also kept particular notice of any of her plane flights. They even kept tabs on a King family outing to Las Vegas and what security company Scott King was using.

Far more invasive though was the Bureau's interception of private letters she had written. . . .

But the file also shows that the Bureau's real worry about Scott King was not the civil rights movement but instead her involvement with the peace and "anti-Vietnam War" movement. Government officials were afraid that she might try to complete what her husband had been doing when he died: 'attempt to tie the anti-Vietnam war movement to the civil rights movement," as one FBI agent put it. . . .

Other reports also show the White House being in the loop on this surveillance. One Agent reported on then New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's phone call to Scott King after her husband's death, offering his condolences and ongoing help. Another reported to the Nixon White House and then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger about what they had learned about Scott King.

Needless to say, Coretta Scott King was not suspected of having committed any crimes. She was a completely innocent woman. And yet the federal government -- with the knowledge and approval of two different presidential administrations at the highest levels -- read her private mail, listened in on her telephone calls, and monitored and recorded her activities, all without warrants or oversight.

It was, of course, similar revelations of surveillance abuses of exactly this sort against Martin Luther King and countless other innocent Americans that led the country to decide that we are not going to allow our government to spy on us any longer without oversight. That conclusion is what led to, among other things, the bipartisan enactment in 1977 of FISA.

But now we have collectively decided -- led first by the Bush administration in secret, followed by the GOP Congress' years-long acquiescence, and expressly endorsed several weeks ago by the Democratic Congress -- to ignore completely those lessons and once again vest in the federal government the power to spy on our communications with no oversight of any kind. The Congress has decided either to pretend that such abuses are unlikely or that it does not mind, and even approves of, the government's spying on whomever they want.

For four years, before Congress legalized it, the Bush administration freely spied on the conversations of Americans with no warrants or oversight of any kind. Despite the fact that the law made it a felony to do that, we still have no idea whose conversations they surveilled and what they did with the information. And unlike the Congress in 1975 which aggressively investigated such matters, the current Congress has demonstrated very little interest in finding out.

Why were politicians in both parties willing to impose the requirement of warrants on the Executive Branch's surveillance powers in the 1970s, at the height of the Cold War when the Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear-tipped warheads pointed at our cities, yet are so afraid (or unwilling) now simply to maintain that same requirement?

The generally candid Democratic Congressman from Virginia, James Moran, was asked about the Democrats' FISA capitulation during a Washington Post chat this week, and this is the explanation he provided:

Question: Did the Democratic Congress give in to illegal surveillance of the phone calls and e-mails of American citizen because they expect to be in the White House in 2008 and want the same ability to spy on us?

Rep. Jim Moran: No. The Democrats were afraid that if there had been a terrorist strike in August, they would have been vulnerable to criticism from the White House that it had been due to the NSA's inability to wiretap communications. The Senate had passed the President's bill and then gone home. And so if the House had passed a bill that was more respectful of the Constitution, nothing would have gotten done until after Labor Day. Nevertheless, I argued strongly in the Democratic Congress against giving in to this White House ploy and voted against the bill that passed.

If the fear of that sort of transparent manipulation from the Bush administration really is what led Democrats to legalize warrantless eavesdropping -- and that certainly seems to be the case at least in part -- that is just pathetic. George Bush utters the word "terrorism" over and over and "small government" Republicans and the Democratic leadership jointly undo decades-old safeguards. They jump and, with virtually no debate, formally return the country to the pre-FISA era of J. Edgar Hoover and oversight-less spying on Americans. It is hard to express just how contemptible that vote is.

With each new Democratic enabling event -- from the recission of habeas corpus to the approval of "enhanced interrogation techniques" to the FISA capitulation and the complete silence (at best) over the administration's increasing belligerence towards Iran -- it becomes more and more difficult to know whether the Democratic leadership is affirmatively supportive of this agenda or simply afraid to oppose it due to the political risks. Either way, on the most egregious abuses of this administration, there is little to no effective opposition, and increasingly, there is much affirmative bipartisan support for those abuses.

What these latest revelations about Coretta Scott King reveal is that it is not a hard case to make that we do not trust our government to spy on us without oversight. As is typically true, if the Democrats actually tried to make that case, rather than run from the debate and hope it disappears as quickly as possible, even more Americans would understand the need for oversight.

That is what a party does when it actually stands for something and believes in something -- it makes its case to the American public. If they are actually interested in restoring FISA safeguards and undoing the damage they just did once the six-month sunset provision elapses -- and that is a big "if" -- Democrats should try that.

What the FBI did to Coretta Scott King, with the approval of two different presidential administrations, is reprehensible, and everyone outside of the small band of Bush authoritarians can understand why that is the case. Using such abuses to demonstrate why the Bush administration (and all other administrations) should be trusted with surveillance powers only accompanied by oversight is what the Democratic leadership would do if they were actually committed, as they claim, to reversing the disgraceful and dangerous law they just enacted.

UPDATE: Digby examines what appears to be the emerging willingness of key Democratic Senators such as Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein to cease pursuing the pending investigations in exchange for some symbolic signs that their views are taken into account when picking the next Attorney General. As she writes:

The Dems are throwing in the towel on the US Attorney scandal for nothing in return but the thrilling fact that Fred Fielding and the White House finally listened to them. (They like us they really like us!)

What this means is that the new AG will be some standard GOP clone who will promise never to lie and never to do all those bad things that Gonzales did.

Congressional Democrats actually seem to become weaker and more accommmodating with every day that passes. Even when you think that they cannot get any weaker or more accommodating, they always manage to prove you wrong.

UPDATE II: In The American Prospect, Art Levine has a well-researched article detailing the events that led to the Democrats' FISA capitulation. Levine examines why advocacy groups (such as the ACLU) and bloggers did not do more to prevent enactment of that law, and my views on that topic are included in the article.

On a separate note, I will be on The Rachel Maddow Show today at 6:30 pm Eastern to discuss the Larry Craig post from yesterday and related matters. Local listings and live audio feed are here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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