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When J. Edgar Hoover Bugged My Phone Calls with My Father

Domestic Spying, Now and Then

by SAUL LANDAU


"If somebody from al-Qaeda is calling you, we’d like to know why. In the meantime, this program is conscious of people’s civil liberties, as am I. This is a limited program designed to prevent attacks on the United States limited to calls from outside the United States to calls within the United States. But, they are of known numbers of known al Qaeda members or affiliatesWe’re at war with a bunch of cold-blooded killers who will kill on a moment’s notice. And I have a responsibility, obviously, to act within the law, which I am doing. It’s a program that has been reviewed a program to which the Congress has been briefed, and a program that is necessary to win this war and to protect the American people."

George W. Bush,
Brooke Army Medical Center, San Antonio, January 1, 2006

Bush’s statement to wounded troops contains a series of lies and distortions. As a series of published reports have revealed, his eavesdropping program did not coincide with protecting civil liberties; nor did he design it to prevent attacks or limit it to "calls from outside the United States."

Surveillance covered people who had no contact with Al Qaeda and nothing to do with what the enemy is thinking– if such an entity has a brain. Bush acted outside the law. Congress had not been briefed. The few Members who knew anything about the program had misgivings. Several Members denied receiving any briefing.
How does the United States win a war against "terrorism," a word connoting violence against civilians, which has been going on since the beginning of history? In the past, wars meant US engagement with enemy nations, not concepts.

"We’re at war,” Bush said. Did I miss the headlines the day Congress declared war against terrorism?

"Next thing you know," quipped Gore Vidal, "Bush will declare war against dandruff as well."

"And as commander in chief, I’ve got to use the resources at my disposal, within the law, to protect the American people," Bush explained as his reason for unauthorized wiretapping. How it fell under the aegis of the law we have yet to learn.

In addition, Homeland Security spooks open citizens’ letters. In December 2005, retired University of Kansas history professor Grant Goodman told reporter Brock N. Meeks, that he "received a letter from his friend in the Philippines that had been opened and resealed with a strip of dark green tape bearing the words "by Border Protection" and carrying the official Homeland Security seal. (MSNBC Jan. 6, 2006)
In 1974, I received some of my own correspondence in some 1,400 pages from the FBI and CIA in response to my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The CIA sent me letters I had sent to friends abroad. I was shocked not only from discovering my disgraceful efforts at prose.

Frivolity aside, the explanations, then and now, for contravening time honored rights, have little resonance with reality. During the Cold War, US leaders referred to "internal subversion," magnified by an external threat of Soviet world domination. This supposed superpower collapsed in 1989 without the United States firing a shot at it.

Robert Scherrer, a former FBI Agent, laughed about the countless hours he spent in the 1960s interviewing "little old Jewish grandmas in the Bronx who had been members of the Communist Party. They were always polite and offered me tea and cookies."

FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover never pursued the Mafia with the vigor he showed in his assault on the left. Reportedly, Mafiosos apparently used against him a photo of the director clad in a tutu while tripping the light fantastic in his living room — in a house he shared with another high FBI official (male). The Mob also practiced surveillance. Like government prying, Mafia snooping related to extending their power.

When I was a university freshman in the 1950s, the FBI opened a file on me for writing a letter to the student newspaper supporting free speech for communists. The documents I received from the Bureau under the FOIA contained dozens of pages of transcripts of my phone conversations in the 1960s and 70s. I read transcripts of conspiratorial phone conversations I’d had with my father about when I would arrive at his Santa Monica home with my wife and kids and how my mother was doing with her diabetes treatments.

I don’t know if anyone actually listened or if the FBI simply recorded and then transcribed these calls. Nor do I know how much it cost the government to carry out wiretapping on thousands of people who did not even contemplate engaging in crime.

In 1956, top FBI leaders invented COINTELPRO, the acronym for Counter Intelligence Program, to target the left and even liberals. COINTELPRO was supposed to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" protest movements and their leaders. The Bureau kept this invasiveness going until 1971.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his cronies considered as "subversive" not only those few loonies who declared their intentions of overthrowing the government, but the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose goal was racial integration. Yes, the Bureau targeted the Ku Klux Klan and handful of Nazis as well.

In those days, the government used the "communist threat" to justify such measures. Today, as in the past, blanket surveillance has no relationship to security. It does, however, produce insecurity. Indeed, it forms part and parcel of the power package that the Bush gang has employed to govern. Bush speech writers use "protecting" as a metaphor for taking away their rights.

Ironically, no Administration in my lifetime has proved so incompetent at protecting its people and responding to emergency needs even natural disasters when they arose. Asleep at the switch before 9/11, the ears of the NSA became super active. Does this electronic listening target Bush political enemies? Or does NSA listen indiscriminately and bug peoples’ email as well? And for what end?

The Bushies did not predict the Iraqi insurgency, nor did they impede the various acts of terrorism carried out by Al Qaeda fanatics in Madrid, London, Indonesia etc

Homeland Security officials under Bush seem very adept at opening returned professors’ personal mail, but as Frank Rich reported, a Christmas week independent audit by the Transportation Safety Administration’s inspector general "found everything from FEMA to border control in some form of disarray." (The Wiretappers That Couldn’t Shoot Straight NYT January 8, 2006)

Yet, Rich continued, the President assures the nation regularly that his aim is to protect them–as he appoints incompetent "cronies into top jobs in immigration enforcement and state and local preparedness with recess appointments that by passed Congressional approval."

I find it difficult that millions of Americans continue to believe anything Bush says. I’m talking of the President who read "My Pet Goat" to Florida second graders for seven minutes after learning a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers; the man who couldn’t discipline himself to leave his vacation home in Texas to visit the Katrina disaster area for five days–and then only from above in Air Force One; the commander in chief who appointed a series of schlemiels to run government agencies, like Michael Brown at FEMA and then complimented them — "You did a heck of a job Brownie" — on their miserable performance. He now assures the public that those who exposed unauthorized wiretapping "put our citizens at risk." Did he think terrorists would not suspect that the US government listened to their calls? Did he not know that for decades the FBI concerned itself with transcribing conversations about the family matters of tens of thousands of liberals and lefties rather than analyze messages about those planning to sabotage the country?

Dick "The Heartless Heart Attack" Cheney went so far as to tell the public that had NSA carried out such non authorized surveillance before 9/11, the attacks might have been prevented.

Did he forget that FBI agents and CIA officials had recorded material indicating something foul afoot, that then National Security Adviser Condi Rice did nothing with that data?

Bush is commander in chief of the most incompetent administration in US history. It has one objective: the exercise of naked power. Its "anti-terrorist" rhetoric to justify overstepping laws and limits should appear as a clumsy façade to the citizens.

Unfortunately, knowledgeable Members of Congress seem reluctant to shout: "the emperor has no clothes." And the media, as Marshall McLuhan said, are the message: keep the pubic confused and distracted so they can shop and vacation. As if to emphasize this, on October 5, 2001, less than a month after 9/11, Bush advised citizens to "Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed."

My question is: can freedom to shop coexist with the growing infringements on other freedoms?

SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. He will be presenting his Emmy Award winning film, Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang, at the Fifth Avenue Cinema in Portland, Oregon on January 28 at 7 PM.