Tony Norman: Obama's support for spying is ill-concealed

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When President Barack Obama leaves the White House in January 2017, the civil libertarians who currently occupy the lowest rung of his increasingly frustrated base will be glad to see him go.

After two terms as the nation's first African-American commander-in-chief, Mr. Obama will have a lot of explaining to do in the memoir of his White House years.

Last week, Mr. Obama tried to convince a skeptical nation that as far as surveillance states go, ours is fairly benign. He attempted to assure us that the National Security Agency's mission to suck up every conceivable metric of information about Americans was essential to spoiling terrorist plots and saving lives.

Meanwhile, neither the NSA nor the Obama administration has been able to cite a single instance "in which analysis of the NSA's bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature," said U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in a ruling against the NSA in December.

Mr. Obama is aware that arguing for the NSA's spying program based purely on its merits would be a loser for him; still, he spent a televised speech last week explaining NSA surveillance and why it was necessary to tolerate a certain amount of intrusiveness in our lives. At one point, Mr. Obama managed to sound like he was promising reform, but he couldn't bring himself to guarantee anything beyond a few procedural changes around the edges like ending the government's holding of Americans' phone records.

While watching a video of Mr. Obama's speech, I thought of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who would've turned 85 last week had he not been assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis. The civil rights leader and everyone around him had aroused the suspicion of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who considered the movement a bastion of dangerous agitators and King "the most dangerous and effective negro leader in America."

Contrary to what conservative revisionists are saying, no one considered King a "black Republican" at the time. When Hoover saw that 250,000 Americans turned out for the 1963 March on Washington, he feared the civil rights leader was using the petty grievances of black people to recruit for the communist cause. U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy signed off on 24-hour surveillance of the movement's leaders, wiretaps, mail tampering and anything else Hoover requested.

The FBI didn't come up with evidence of communist ties or affiliations in King's inner circle, but the dragnet turned up plenty of evidence of his marital infidelity -- information that would have been embarrassing to the movement and devastating to his family.

Naturally, Hoover tried to blackmail King into abandoning his role as leader of the movement. An agent, posing as a black man, sent him an "anonymous" letter just before he was to receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize:

"King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes. White people in this country have enough frauds of their own but I am sure they don't have one at this time anywhere near your equal. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that. You could not believe in God. ... Clearly you don't believe in any personal moral principles.

"King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do it. ... You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation."

King remained defiant and refused to step down or kill himself. Instead, he flew to Oslo to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize. In frustration, Hoover shared the info with Bobby Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson, but it made them think less of the FBI director -- not less of King. Hoover never shared the info with the press, as he threatened to do, because notorious secrets were the source of his power.

To his credit, Mr. Obama addressed the very large elephant in the room in his NSA speech, but only in passing. "I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents like Dr. King, who were spied on by their own government," he said.

He was not willing, however, to connect the dots from the federal government's spying then to what it would do later to far more Americans.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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