We need a national dialogue on civil liberties abuses and government secrecy

On December 22, 1974, The New York Times published an article by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh. The lead paragraph read: “The Central Intelligence Agency, directly violating its charter, conducted a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation during the Nixon Administration against the antiwar movement and other dissident groups in the United States, according to well-placed government sources.”

Hersh revealed the CIA’s domestic spying included illegal wiretaps, break-ins and massive file-gathering on U.S. Citizens. His series of articles on the subject created a stir and spawned both House and Senate investigative committees. The committees looked into both CIA and FBI abuses.

The hearings brought to light the FBI’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), an effort to discredit dissident groups, including civil rights and women’s liberation groups, and certain leftist organizations. COINTELPRO wiretapped Martin Luther King, Jr., and according to a U.S. Senate Select Committee report, focused on trying to knock King “off his pedestal and reduce him completely in influence.” (Source for quote: Kathryn S. Olmsted’s Challenging The Secret Government.)

What’s disturbing about this is that little has been done in the years since to discourage these kinds of abuses. In fact, today government officials publicly support gathering information on citizens and discrediting and breaking up protest groups. In the 70s, officials blamed excessive secrecy and civil liberties violations on the Cold War, and today they justify them by claiming they’re necessary in the endless and nebulously defined war on terrorism.

Just a little over forty years ago, the country (including members of Congress) cared enough about excessive government secrecy and the oppression of civil liberties that our learning about them caused a public outcry and Senate and House investigations. Today when the latest abuses are revealed, they’re just a blip on the radar screen, quickly whisked down the memory hole for most Americans and elected officials.

Today when city officials violate the public’s right to assemble or thwart journalists trying to cover protests, or when laws that go against our constitutional protections are proposed or passed (e.g. the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA), we as a nation tend to ignore it. We hear next to nothing about these things from the mainstream media, no politicians call for hearings, and few citizens are speaking out. We seem to be a country that has unconsciously collectively agreed to bear mute witness and let every last trace of civil liberties gradually slip away without putting up a fight. Whatever “force” or mindset is behind this ringing silence can’t possibly be a force for good.

None of this is to say the country has ever had a perfectly egalitarian, halcyon age. Still, giving voice to our concern at this time, even doing as little as asking mainstream media to discuss the implications of the NDAA, is a way to break the silence and help start a national conversation. The latest developments in our slide toward totalitarianism matter and will continue to impact this and future generations. Shouldn’t larger numbers of us at least acknowledge, define and address the problem instead of quietly ignoring it?

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