THE NSA's spying eyes on the prize

As the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington approaches, commemorating that historic gathering where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, it is important to recall the extent to which King was targeted by the government's domestic spying apparatus. The FBI operation against King is one of the most shameful episodes in the long history of our government's persecution of dissenters. Fifty years later, Edward Snowden, who has just received permission to reside in Russia (at least for a year), took enormous personal risk to expose the global reach of surveillance programs overseen by President Barack Obama. His revelations continue to provoke worldwide condemnation of the U.S.

In a heavily redacted, classified FBI memo dated Jan. 4, 1956 -- just a little over a month after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger -- the Mobile, Ala., FBI office stated that an agent "had been assigned by [redacted] to find out all he could about Reverend MARTIN L. KING, colored minister in Montgomery and leader in the bus boycott ... to uncover all the derogatory information he could about KING."

The FBI at that time was run by its founding director, J. Edgar Hoover, who was deploying the vast resources he controlled against any and all perceived critics of the United States. The far-reaching clandestine surveillance, infiltration and disruption operation Hoover ran was dubbed 'COINTELPRO," for counterintelligence program. The FBI's COINTELPRO activities, along with illegal operations by agencies like the CIA, were thoroughly investigated in 1975 by the Church Committee, chaired by the Democratic U.S. senator from Idaho, Frank Church. The Church Committee reported that the FBI "conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association." Among COINTELPRO's perverse activities was an FBI effort to threaten Martin Luther King Jr. with exposure of an alleged extramarital affair, including the suggestion, made by the FBI to King, that he avoid embarrassment by killing himself.

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