Recently, PBS aired a documentary, Spies of Mississippi, which documented a massive spying operation engaged in by the State of Mississippi in an effort to discredit the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950's. The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a secret agency established by the state to spy on civil rights activists, engaged in some of the same tactics that the NSA is now doing 60 years later. The MSSC is one antecedent of the NSA. It also shows that the kind of moral turpitude engaged in by certain governmental, political, and corporate interests in violating our privacy is nothing new.
These records are searchable online here. In 1994, the ACLU of Mississippi successfully sued in order to force the state to release these documents for public consumption. Hugh Handeyside of the ACLU writes:
It turns out that the Commission was nothing if not meticulous, documenting the full range of its exploits in service of white supremacy. It initially focused on tracking the activities of civil rights organizations in Mississippi, but within a few years it had mushroomed into a full-scale spy agency, employing a network of investigators and agents who surveilled civil rights activists, tapped their phones, monitored their meetings, stole sensitive documents, and undermined voter rights efforts.These tactics described here are painfully familiar for those of us who have lived through the Patriot Act, John Poindexter's "Total Information Awareness," and the NSA. And while Separate but Equal is no longer the law of the land in the South, racial profiling is still widely practiced. So the next time you hear certain corporate, political, or governmental interests defending NSA as the bulwark against the Big Bad Terrorists, remember the racist roots of this program.
The Commission was ruthless, waging an all-out war against change. Perhaps most painfully, it assembled a cadre of African American informants, some of them respected figures from within the civil rights community, who reported to the Commission on the strategy and plans of the burgeoning rights movement — and sowed fear and mistrust among civil rights leaders. It destroyed the lives of people like Clyde Kennard, a Black Korean War veteran who attempted to enroll at what was then Mississippi Southern College. The Commission orchestrated the planting of evidence used to convict Mr. Kennard of stealing chicken feed. He served seven years in prison. Commission agents also funneled information to local law enforcement (which was rife with KKK members) about student activists who were descending on Mississippi for the "Freedom Summer" of 1964, including James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, who were then murdered by Klansmen.
And like the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission destroyed lives through planting evidence and sending civil rights activists to jail, our government is busy destroying the lives of whistleblowers whose only crime is to expose the culture of corruption that is prevalent in far too many quarters of government.
As long as we have a government which doesn't trust its people to do the right thing, there will always be the risk of tyranny of this nature. And as long as we have a government that does not treat everyone equally, there will be certain people within government who have similar bright ideas about snooping in peoples' bedrooms and living rooms. And as long as the police state is alive and well in this country, our politicians cannot credibly claim that they are for reducing the deficit and government spending.