In the free-wheeling '60s, those of us who considered ourselves activists used to joke about surveillance. If you were on the phone and heard a click, you'd make some crack about the FBI listening in and go right on talking. We were children enough of the McCarthy/J. Edgar Hoover era that we had no doubt the government was listening in on all kinds of people -- pacifists and anti-bomb folks, the antiwar crowd (slightly different), leftist religious groups, even teachers' unions.
But here's the point. We weren't the least bit frightened of being prosecuted or even arrested. This was America and the McCarthy era was over, never to return, or so we thought. We had no Gulag, no prisons where they locked you up and threw away the key.
I remember one day when I was living in Washington. I got really aggravated about the war and frustrated about our lack of home rule. The city was being run by a bunch of appointed commissioners. The school board, appointed by a gnarled old judge who wouldn't appoint any mothers of schoolchildren because, he told us when we asked, "They should be home with their children," would hold one public hearing a year. One member made a point of reading a book to make sure everyone knew he wasn't listening. As I said, it was a different era.
Anyway, I made myself a picket sign. One side said, "Stop the War." The other side said, "Home Rule Now." I went down to the White House and began marching back and forth in front. You could do that in those days.
Sure enough about 10 minutes later, a big black car pulled to the curb. A guy in a porkpie hat got out -- that's the flat-topped kind with a little brim. You see lots of them these days but at that time, all I could think of was that no one had worn one of those since the 1920s, and then only college students. Anyway he had a camera and came right over and snapped my picture. "Hi," I said. "Are you from the FBI?" He laughed and headed back to his car. It made me feel my message had been seen.
Some years later, the government actually told the activists they could have access to their files. Things were arguably more transparent in those days -- and of course there was a lot less data. Maybe there had been a lawsuit -- can't remember. But for those who actually requested their files, a lot of people were shocked to find out that it had been no joke. The FBI actually had been tracking them. For others of course, there was no file and I suspect some were disappointed that the FBI hadn't found them important enough to spy on. Still, file or not, no one thought anything would come of it.
How things have changed. These days, of course, the NSA and who knows how many other agencies are collecting data on all of us. You can still ask for your file, but I personally would be a lot more alarmed to know I had one. And given the Democratic administration's response to Snowden and other whistle blowers and its attempt to go after journalists, I wonder who will be next.
Funny thing is in those days there were a lot of us who really did want to change the system. These days all most national security journalists and whistle blowers want is to promote the rights we should be guaranteed in this democracy. And that has become a scary proposition.