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NSA reassurances about privacy rights feel hollow [Commentary]

With all the discussion of surveillance, meta-data and phone taps over the past few weeks, I can't help thinking of my own experience as a surveillee back in the 1970s when cruder methods were used. All of the reassurances that everything will be fine just don't work for me.

I was an anti-war, anti-racist, socialist activist back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, although the only illegal thing that I did was to sit down in the Charles and Mulberry intersection in 1970 with several thousand others to protest the Vietnam War. I didn't know that the FBI was keeping tabs on me until I requested my files through the Freedom of Information Act in 1977.

I came to the attention of the FBI in the fall of 1970 because my name was listed as one of the contact people in an anti-war leaflet that was distributed to faculty at UMBC, where I was a young assistant professor. This act of free speech, along with my participation in a local anti-war group, was enough to initiate a full investigation. A specific person had to give that leaflet to the FBI. Today's email monitoring makes this violation of constitutional rights much easier.

After finding that I was also a member of the New University Conference, a left-wing organization of faculty and graduate students, and was also involved in two groups trying to protect the rights of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party, I was put on the Security Index (SI). According to a 1977 letter from then FBI Director Clarence Kelly, my name was entered on a 5 x 8 card, which contained background information, nationalistic tendencies, file numbers and organizational affiliation. These cards, filed alphabetically, comprised the SI. Today's computerized files make the SI seem puny.

I learned from a September 21, 1971, memorandum that I was upgraded from Priority III to Priority II, which meant I "constituted a greater danger to the internal security ... of the United States" and that my apprehension was a greater priority.

In one sense, I'm flattered by the status they said I had. If I really had the power, the war would have ended sooner and the economic gap in our country would be much smaller.

Because of my new Priority II status, a letter from Director J. Edgar Hoover alerted the U.S. Secret Service that I was a potential danger to the president. The form letter contained a number of different boxes to check, describing the nature of the alleged threat. My box was 3: "Because of background is potentially dangerous; or has been identified as a member or participant in communist movement; or has been under active investigation as member of other group or organization inimical to U.S."

Although the SI 5 x 8 cards were discontinued in late 1971, the new "ADEX" system, with its own round-up priorities, included my name. According to Director Kelly, "Individuals were not included on this index merely because of opposition to government policies or because they exercised their constitutional rights of protest or dissent." You had to be a threat. Today, we are told that our phone data won't be investigated unless there is good reason to do so. Right.

In April 1975, I was removed from the ADEX list, even though the "Pro-Chinese Communist" and "Revolutionary" boxes were still checked on the official form. My main political activity at the time was working with the US-China People's Friendship Association, which the FBI finally realized was no threat to anyone.

The crude nature of the surveillance at that time can be illustrated by my temporary move to New York from Baltimore during a 1974 sabbatical leave. The FBI panicked when they discovered that I was no longer at my Baltimore address. It took several months and numerous memoranda for them to locate me, even though my name was listed on the register of the apartment building I was living in. Today, they would know where I am instantly by using my smart phone GPS device.

The FBI grossly exaggerated my importance to the Baltimore movement, and I was fortunate not to have been harmed. But when President Barack Obama and others tell us not to worry about our privacy rights with the large-scale collection of meta-data from cell phone records and emails, I'm not reassured.

Fred L. Pincus is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He's also on the board of directors of the Research Associates Foundation, which gives small grants to local activists. His email is pincus@umbc.edu.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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