An Agent in Every Mailbox


Forty years ago Senator Frank Church of Idaho during Senate committee hearings on investigation of the FBI and CIA and their misuse of power at home and abroad stated “We have seen today the dark side of those activities, where many Americans, who were not even suspected of crime, were not only spied upon, but they were harassed, they were discredited, and, at times, endangered.”  (1)

A few years earlier on March 8, 1971, a group of eight individuals successfully broke into the FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania where they took numerous files.  These files contained documents implicitly involving the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover in a secret program which came to be known as COINTELPRO, standing for Counterintelligence Program.  Even with the power of the FBI the burglars have successfully remained free and only this week have their identities become known.

In her new book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, Betty Medsger reveals the narrative stories of the Media break-in and gives insight into the political times of yesteryear and today in light of privacy and national security.  Among the files removed from the Media field office were documents directing personnel to initiate surveillance “in every place where people would gather – churches, classrooms, stores down the street, just everything.”  Illustrative of the impact of the directive to spy on Americans is the statement “make the people think there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox”.  (2)  Although the burglars who identified themselves as the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI delivered documents to several news outlets and key individuals only The Washington Post published documents, refusing to comply with White House demands not publish the documents.

In considering our current concerns with surveillance and the publication of the Snowden documents, should the fear of terrorism be offset with our government’s capability to employ digital surveillance to spy on people without proper due process and equal protection?  Should citizens of the U.S. as well as of other countries fear the “unknown” associated with the long arm of law enforcement?  Moreover, what should we as civilians draw from COINTELPRO compared with today’s NSA, much less the continuing existence of the FBI and CIA?

Perhaps key to the analysis is whether those who have been labeled criminal and whistleblower by the government are truly the beacons of freedom and knowledge that the citizenry requires in order to rein in the government as the servant of the society?  In consideration of these questions is a pivotal observation.  Sometimes government must keep secrets and sometimes it must lie to the citizenry.  Contrary to popular sentiment this is often necessary in order to keep a peaceable society.  Humans after all have a very basic instinct in reacting to fear with anger, hate, and reprisal.  These qualities while sometimes positively driven by need for patriotism contrastingly if allowed to arise as purely behavioral responses may be very destructive to the unity and safety of the nation.

Having said this and no doubt distanced several readers let me comment that only in dire circumstances should government directly and purposefully lie in response to public inquiry about its activities involving the citizens of the nation.  Citizens of this nation are to be protected by the government, but the government is always accountable to the people and must respond to inquiry.  This does not obviate the government’s decision to decline to answer in order to protect the nation, but this is not carte Blanc sanction establishing a bill of secrecy.

Our constitution provides fundamental protections.  Two of these protections have been interpreted as privacy and free movement.  The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments listed in the Bill of Rights charge the government with a duty to assure not only Due Process but also Equal Protection to each citizen.

In instances where government is a party to a citizen’s potential loss of life or liberty in movement citizens must be afforded fair opportunity to protect themselves.  When government shrugs its shoulders and neglects to intercede to protect the citizen or purposefully involves itself in denial of Due Process and/ or Equal Protection of the citizen then citizens must take unusual steps to correct the deficiency of government.

Where capable of implementing legal process should be employed, but where that fails or is barred, the citizen has the right to challenge government extra-legally.  The cases of the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI and Edward Snowden are examples of citizens forcing government to acknowledge its hidden agendas.

Malcolm L. Rigsby J.D., Ph.D. is assistant professor of Sociology and Coordinator of Criminal Justice at Henderson State University, Arkansas.  His recent study involves religious conversion in prison comparing Islamic and Christian converts and transforming sociality.


(1)   AARC.  2014.  AARC the Assassination Archives and Research Center. Volume 6: Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Silver Spring, MD.  Retrieved January 8, 2014 (http://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/contents/church/contents_church_reports_vol6.htm).

(2)   Democracy Now.  2014.  “It Was Time to Do More Than Protest”: Activists Admit to 1971FBI Burglary That Exposed COINTELPRO”.  Democracy Now.  Retrieved (http://www.democracynow.org/2014/1/8/it_was_time_to_do_more).

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