Domestic Spying is Nothing New


Forgive me if I come across as cynical, but why is anyone surprised by our domestic spying?  I am not talking about the ridiculous situation with the IRS.  That is a tempest in a teapot, and everyone knows that.   No, I am speaking about the NSA spying.

Think about it for a second, and really this comes down to how far back in history you want to go.  For those of us who lived through the 1960s and 1970s, there was the case of the FBI’s notorious Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) that was used to disrupt and suppress  social justice movements and organizations, including but not limited to the Black freedom movement.  Think of how many organizations were destroyed, activists imprisoned, killed or, literally, driven insane.

Jump forward to 2001 and the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 Al Qaeda terrorist attacks.  In a rush that would make an Olympic sprint appear to be a snail’s race, the Patriot Act was passed by Congress without most legislators stopping to read it.  We have been living with the Patriot Act ever since and this administration has never taken the slightest step to move to overturn it.   Thus, we continue to have Guantanamo cages and targeted assassinations.  And, of course, we have wiretapping.

The Obama administration counters its critics by suggesting that this domestic surveillance has successfully thwarted numerous terrorist conspiracies.  I do not doubt for a moment that that is at least partially true.  But that avoids a larger question.  After all, a broken clock is right twice a day.  The issue that the people of the U.S.A. have to address is the implication of living in a constant state of fear and never getting to the root of the larger problem of terrorism.

Let’s be clear that in most discussions of terrorism, there is very little concern about domestic, right-wing terrorism.  The proliferation of right-wing militias and other para-military formations is all but ignored by the mainstream media (and much of law enforcement) despite the fact that these forces constitute a greater threat to us in the U.S. than many Islamic jihadists.

Let us also be clear that the policies of the USA frequently catalyze the actions of fanatics.  Do we need to be reminded of how U.S. support for Muslim fundamentalists in their war with the then-Soviet Union in Afghanistan (in the 1980s), only to abandon Afghanistan, contributed to the 9/11 blowback?  Do we need to be reminded that the NATO intervention in Libya unleashed weapons caches that have spread AK-47s throughout North Africa?  Do we need to think for more than a second about the implications of intervening in the Syrian civil war as allies of the jihadists and their Saudi/Qatari sponsors?

Instead of asking the big questions, too many of us have decided to live in a permanent state of fear of the next terrorist attack. That fear has translated, for more than 12 years, into a willingness to close our eyes to the erosion of civil liberties; the unapologetic enthusiasm of the U.S.A. to engage in torture and targeted assassinations; and the audacity of initiating aggression in violation of international law and precedent, all in the name of opposing terrorism.

Just so that I am not misunderstood, this problem did not start with the Obama administration, and, unless we do something, will not end with the Obama administration. There should be no surprises here about domestic surveillance.  Instead the time has come to draw a line.  Authoritarianism never suggests an end to freedom; rather, it promises safety and security against the threat of the moment.


Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies.  He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions.  Follow him on Facebook and

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