By Athan Theoharis
Today, June 5, is the anniversary of Edward Snowden's dramatic revelations concerning the National Security Agency's (NSA) massive surveillance programs.
On this and succeeding days, Snowden released formerly secret NSA records. These records contradicted the Obama Administration's benign assurances that NSA surveillance initiatives were confined to advancing legitimate security interests.
Snowden's revelations, however, have left unanswered two questions: how valuable were these massive surveillance initiatives in uncovering terrorist plots and what uses were made of the intercepted information.
Snowden's actions, moreover, were not unprecedented. In March 1971, anti-Vietnam war activists in the Philadelphia area broke into the Media, PA residence agency of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and stole thousands of pages of FBI records. That and in succeeding weeks these activists photocopied and released the pilfered FBI records to the media. These records documented the scope and illegality of FBI surveillance activities and how FBI officials exploited acquired information to "harass, disrupt, and discredit" targeted civil rights and anti-war activists (contradicting FBI officials heretofore benign characterization of their actions). The break-in, preceding the so-called Watergate affair of 1972-1973, combined with further revelations of FBI (but also Central Intelligence Agency, CIA) abusive practices, triggered investigations conducted by House and Senate special committees in 1975-1976--investigations based on unprecedented access to not only FBI but also NSA and CIA records.
The investigations confirmed how secrecy had enabled intelligence agency officials and the White House to abuse power, moving beyond a claimed "national security" purpose to contain political activists and their liberal and radical critics.
This now-known history, and the unprecedented opportunity (a seemingly foolhardy burglary of an FBI office) highlights the need once again for an independent inquiry to ascertain the validity of Administration claims that NSA surveillance programs are legal and confined to advancing legitimate security interests.