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The FBI's Attacks on MLK, Jr. Are Helpful Reminders for Today

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Writing for the Wall Street Journal in 2005, federal judge and former U.S. deputy attorney general Laurence Silberman recalled how he was "shocked" to discover the extent the FBI abused its power to spy on Americans. 

Speaking of the first time he reviewed the files of J. Edgar Hoover, Silberman writes how Hoover tasked "his agents with reporting privately to him on any bits of dirt on figures such as Martin Luther King or their families — information Hoover sometimes used as blackmail to ensure his and the bureau's power."

Silberman was writing of having first learned of these abuses of power back in the 1970s. Using a well-worn Hollywood cliché, one might say those days were a "more innocent time." Nowadays it is widely known that the FBI was the personal playground of J. Edgar Hoover who employed the agency to punish his political enemies and gain compliance from others. 

In spite of its claims, though, the FBI has never moved terribly far from its days as Hoover's praetorian guard. Tellingly, the FBI still refuses to remove Hoover's name from its headquarters in Washington, and the agency's habit of routinely violating the privacy of American citizens is now institutionalized, rather than the product of any single man's crusade. 

Both James Bovard and Timothy Weiner have documented in many ways the FBI legacy of using its power to destroy political threats to its power, and to do so in extra-legal ways whenever deemed "necessary." 

Today, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, offers an opportunity to focus on some of the methods employed by the FBI. As The Daily Caller reports today

In addition to tapping King’s phones and bugging his hotel rooms, the FBI used darker methods to attack the civil rights leader.

[The FBI] sent to King’s home a “suicide package” in 1964 that contained audio recordings of King’s extramarital trysts and an unsigned letter telling him “there is only one way out for you.” The letter, which was published in un-redacted form by The New York Times in 2014, threatened to make the recordings public unless King offed himself within 34 days.

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

(The charges of "filthy" and "abnormal" are especially cute given the unorthodox sexual activities of Hoover and then-president Lyndon Johnson.)

Paranoia at the FBI 

King was just one of many targets of "COINTELPRO," a series of often-illegal operations employed by the bureau to harass and persecute the federal government's political enemies. 

COINTELPRO, however, was just the manifestation of FBI paranoia in that specific era. The exact nature of the motivation changes over time. In the late 'teens, the Palmer raids were employed to go after suspected Bolsheviks and "anarchists" in an extra-legal fashion. 

In the 1920s, the FBI was spying on US Senators who were deemed insufficiently loyal to the US regime. Weiner explains

By the time Congress reconvened in March 1923, [Attorney General Harry] Daugherty and [William J.] Burns were conducting political espionage against senators whom the attorney general saw as threats to America. The bureau was breaking into their offices and homes, intercepting their mail, and tapping their telephones, just as it had done to members of the Communist party. The only rationale was the political movement in the Senate toward American diplomatic recognition of Soviet Russia.

After all, Weiner notes how in the early 20s, "Hoover and his General Intelligence Division warned constantly of a violent communist revolution." Hoover happily used the paranoia he produced to increase his own political power.

40 years later, the FBI was still at it, this time tapping King's phone's an an attempt to get him to kill himself.1 

Today, though, the FBI and other American intelligence agencies are attempting to legalize what was once considered illegal, or at least of questionable legality. 

What the FBI wants today are equivalents of Dan Brookman calls "modern-day writs of assistance" or blank-check warrants that enable federal agents to simply gather every bit of private information they can on private citizens. 

As Judge Napolitano explains, the federal government is moving toward expanding the use of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants to enable agencies like the FBI to more easily use surveillance data against Americans: 

If enacted, this radical, unconstitutional hole in the Fourth Amendment would bring the country full circle back to the government’s use of general warrants to harass and prosecute — general warrants so odious to our forebears that they took up arms against the king’s soldiers to be rid of them.

Many Americans today like to comfort themselves with the idea that "I'm not involved in any threats to national security" or "I don't associate with terrorists" and then think themselves immune from government abuses. 

But Martin Luther King didn't present any threat to national security either. He didn't call for violent acts to be perpetrated against the American state. He was, however, a political thorn in the side of powerful Washington politicians, so the federal government turned to some of the things they do best. It turned to persecuting, threatening, and spying, in the hopes of doing away with an inconvenient person.

King's experience (and the COINTELPRO experience in general) today remain a healthy reminder of how the federal government operates and just how little regard it has for the law. One can only imagine how flimsy will be the limits imposed on the FBI and other federal agencies should the current attacks on the Fourth Amendment succeed. 

  • 1. Paranoia still reigned in the late 1970s when FBI agents convinced themselves — or at least tried to convince the public — that every less-than-happy group in America was a potential incubator of violent revolutionaries. One notable example is the propaganda war against the American Indian Movement. AIM was a small, rural movement designed largely to fight against federal meddling in Indian reservations. Paid FBI informants like Douglass Durham, an FBI provocateur working inside AIM, put forward the narrative that AIM members were plotting the violent overthrow of the American government.  In The Encyclopedia of the American Indian Movement, Bruce E. Johansen writes: "After he was discovered and dismissed from AIM, Durham developed an extensive anti-AIM campaign. He went on the road with a lecture tour sponsored by the arch-conservative John Birch Society, branding AIM members as gun-toting communist terrorists. He also testified in similar character before the US Congress. In 1976, Durham created wholly fictional memos describing a fake band of AIM revolutionaries call the 'Dog Soldiers.' The FBI distributed these 'teletypes' nationally and watched as they were broadcast on the CBS, NBC, and ABC evening news. Later, FBI director Clarence Kelly admitted that the tale of the 'Dog Soldiers' was entirely fictitious." 

Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is executive editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy, finance, and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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