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Whistleblower Reunion: Edward Snowden Meets the COINTELPRO Burglars

At 100Reporters’ “Double Exposure” symposium in Washington, D.C., whistleblower Edward Snowden (via proxy servers), who released information on NSA spying, got to meet some of the team that broke into FBI headquarters in 1971 and released information on the infamous COINTELPRO operation. It was hard to tell who was more impressed with whom. 

"A debt we can never repay."

The 1971 burglars’ story has only recently come to light, with a book by journalist Betty Medsger and a film by Johanna Hamilton. The team released information that showed the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover—at that time a revered national figure for preserving public safety--had been violating civil rights and blackening reputations in the name of national security. They offered the material to five journalistic outlets; only the Washington Post’s Betty Medsger picked it up.

“The 1971 burglary resulted in putting handcuffs on the intelligence agencies,” Snowden said. “We owe these people a debt we can never repay. They saved us from a path that is fundamentally contrary to the values of our society.”

He called them an inspiration: “I saw that I was only another step in an unbroken chain of individuals who saw there was something so wrong that they couldn’t sit by and not do anything about it.”

John Raines, who with his wife Bonnie had joined the burglary team, returned the compliment, telling Snowden:

I first want to tell you how grateful we are for your patriotic act. You’re facing what we were in the 1970s, a cult of secrecy at the very top of government, combined with governmental overreach. In 1971 we were parents of three kids under 10. We didn’t want to do this. But a nation governed by fear will very quickly become a poorly governed nation.

Back in 1971, no one wanted to hold Hoover accountable. Hoover was a master of cultivating the fear of communist conspiracy and infiltration of high places. Hoover was both the most feared and most admired man in DC. We the people made the icon we needed.

You’re running into the same thing today. The fear we have today is a fear of terrorism. Without what you did, we couldn’t have this conversation. You showed us what we needed to bring into conversation, as we did 40 years ago.

Bonnie Raines noted, “One of the differences between Mr. Snowden’s case and ours was that he took responsibility for releasing those documents, at great personal cost. Mr. Snowden, we hope that you get the opportunity to defend yourself and tell everyone how important what you did was.”

Movements and individuals.

After lawyer David Kairys noted how many actions there had been in protest of the Vietnam War—for instance, 350 attacks on draft boards—Snowden commented, “I’m trying even to imagine participation at that broad social level for flagrant criminal acts by the government. It is hard to comprehend because radicalism has become a dirty word, and the government embraces that.”

He noted that the fear Hoover played on so successfully, of Communism, had returned as a fear of terrorism “When 9/11 happened, people said everything changed—although terrorist attacks, even small ones, are incredibly rare. In today’s reality, extremism, radicalism and—a term of art—radicalizers are the target. Single individuals are targetted on the basis of their political participation.” He pointed to the ability of the NSA to intimidate anyone who wants to complain, simply by being able to spy on their private habits and using that knowledge to destroy a career.

David Kairys, who had advised the 1971 burglars and defended other Vietnam protesters, said privacy should be a real concern. “What do we think government does when it gets this information? We have a full picture from COINTELPRO. They didn’t care that they were not authorized by law to do what they did. On the left they went after any dissenting viewpoint--anyone pro-integration, any black group, anyone in favor of the women’s movement, or opposed to the Vietnam War. It wasn’t vetted by any law. It was designed to disrupt movements. This moment has some of the same features. For 50 years, the national police acted as a political force intervening in American democracy. You may think that can only happen in a developing country without a democracy, and it can’t happen here.” But, he said, it can, it did and it does.

National security?

John Raines drew parallels between then and now. “We talk about national security, but what are you trying to secure? We thought it was the values of a democracy, such as freedom. Today we are in a similarly dangerous situation. We need major discussions in this country about what we do and don’t do in this country around national security.”

Snowden found in passage of the USA Freedom Act, which provides some checks on government spying, a good beginning. “When intelligence agencies operate in secret, without any check, counterpoint, or adversarial press, and then when you have the full story suddenly—well, you aren’t certain you’ll move into the land of unicorns and rainbows, but it’ll be hard for things to get worse.” He has also seen the public rhetoric around his own actions shift, with recognition of the magnitude of the issues exposed.

John Raines saluted his achievement: “Ed, we’re riding on your coattails. You are my hero, for getting to us the people--the sovereigns of this country--the information we need in order to exercise our rights as citizens, to tell Washington what it can and can’t do.”