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    If Martin Luther King Were Around Today, He'd Be Spied On by the NSA

    Written by

    Meghan Neal

    contributing editor

    Fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington. The speech would go down in history. It would also trigger a sketchy FBI surveillance operation that today is regarded as a dark stamp on the Bureau's history and one of the biggest abuses of power by US intelligence.

    Until now, at least. It’s hard to ignore the bleak parallels between the NSA’s controversial PRISM program and the overreaching spying on Dr. King by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Let’s flash back to 1963 for a minute. At that time, the FBI was already monitoring King on suspicion that he had ties to the Communist Party—the mid-century threat to national security that's been replaced by terrorism today.

    Days after the powerful speech, Hoover ramped up surveillance on King, labeling the activist as a dangerous individual. What started as an investigation into suspected communist ties morphed into a ploy to discredit King as a civil rights leader. The FBI tapped King’s phones, bugged the hotels he visited, combed through his tax returns, monitored his financial affairs, and closely followed his private life—going so far as to dig through trash cans for receipts

    The Bureau tried to prevent him from meeting with world leaders or receiving public honors or financial support. It contacted religious leaders to undermine their support of him, and made plans to sabotage a political campaign in case King decided to run for office. All without court authorization or oversight.

    We know so much about the secret program thanks to a report released over a decade later by the Church Committee, a Senate investigative committee led by Senator Frank Church. Bloomberg News unearthed the report yesterday.

    How far have we come in 50 years? If PRISM had existed in 1963, Hoover would be reading MLK's Facebook messages instead of tapping landline phones.

    The 1976 report reads like it could have been written today. Titled "Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans," it detailed the scope and implications of the FBI’s covert snooping. “Although the claimed purposes of these action programs were to protect the national security and to prevent violence, many of the victims were concededly nonviolent, were not controlled by a foreign power, and posed no threat to the national security,” the committee found. “The acts taken interfered with the First Amendment rights of citizens."

    How far have we come in 50 years? If PRISM had existed in 1963, Hoover would be reading MLK's Facebook messages instead of tapping landline phones.

    In fact, back in 1975, Church predicted what would happen if surveillance powers weren't kept in check: "The National Security Agency's capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide." 

    Replace telegrams with cell phone metadata and email, and you've painted a pretty accurate picture. 

    Of course, there are differences between the NSA's data collection today and the FBI’s rogue spying of yore. Far more of our lives sit on servers now than they ever did in King's day, which makes more of our data accessible than ever. There's a flip side, too, if you take current FBI Director Robert Mueller's word for it: Mueller told CNN that today, nearly half of intelligence investigations focus on protecting civil rights and preventing law enforcement from abusing its power.

    And yet, aspects of the NSA's surveillance were found unconstitutional and illegal by the FISA court, and we recently discovered that members of the agency are using their powers to spy on love interests. Historian David Garrow told Bloomberg News that the FBI's snooping on King should serve as “a well-remembered reminder that US intelligence agencies should not be trusted to behave properly, or even legally, in the absence of aggressive investigative oversight.” 

    Who's to say the government is any more trustworthy today than it was 50 years ago? Remember, King was viewed as a radical by many within the government, which was cause enough for surveillance then. Today, with secret oversight and massive surveillance capabilities, spying on the next Dr. King is an even easier proposition.