By Robert McCaw
How would Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., have reacted to recent revelations that the U.S. government is collecting and storing nearly every citizen's phone records and gathering their electronic data?
From 1958 until his 1968 assassination, the FBI conducted extensive surveillance on Dr. King, amassing over 17,000 pages of material on his day-to-day activities.
Today King's legacy as a civil rights leader is celebrated; there is even a federal holiday named after him. But during his lifetime, the government tracked his movements, tapped his phones, bugged his offices and hotel rooms, and planted informants to spy on him. In addition, the FBI anonymously sent him a letter threatening to destroy his credibility and suggesting that he commit suicide to avoid this.
King was also separately targeted by an NSA domestic spying program called "Minaret." With others, including Muhammad Ali, Dr. King wasÂ labeledÂ and watch-listed as a possible "domestic terrorist and foreign radical" suspect.
We know that Dr. King was aware of his constant surveillance and the threat that it posed to him, yet he continued to teach and promote the ideals of peaceful organizing and resistance, equality, fraternity, and freedom until his life was taken.
So how would he react to the recent disclosures that the NSA and FBI, along with the CIA, DEA, and even local law enforcement agencies like the NYPD are spying on U.S. citizens by collecting communication metadata and infiltrating public demonstrations, activist circles, and houses of worship?
Today Dr. King would be confronted with the Orwellian truth that we are all under surveillance, although some groups -- like American Muslims -- are under more scrutiny than others. However, whether you are white or black, Hispanic or Asian, Muslim or Christian, the government is spying on all groups as potential "domestic terrorist and foreign radicals."
Just as it was 50 years ago, the NSA and FBI have once again been caught abusing their surveillance powers, infringing on the liberties they are sworn to protect -- all in the name of national security.
These government spying programs constitute a clear violation the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures, and chills First Amendment freedom of speech.
Dr. King supported the Constitution as a framework for all citizens to achieve equal rights, and I believe he would have vocally opposed such government intrusions and spying. While he may have remained publicly silent on the government's unlawful invasion of his personal life, it's hard to believe that he would have sat idly by and let every American experience similar attacks on personal liberties as he faced while leading the battle for civil rights and the nation's soul.
To honor Dr. King's legacy and the values on which our nation was founded, Americans should work together to challenge these expansive domestic spying programs that are robbing us of our civil liberties.
Some members of Congress and the Obama administration make the claim that these spying programs are lawful under the USA PATRIOT Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Dr. King would know better -- the Constitution is clear and these programs are illegal and need to be ended.
Robert McCaw is the government affairs manager at CAIR's national office in Washington, D.C.
On July 4, CAIR will mark Independence Day by joining fellow Americans at the "Restore the Fourth" rally in Washington, D.C. in support of the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches.
This rally comes at a time when the country's national security and law enforcement agencies are accused of engaging in several domestic spying programs that allowed them to obtain the daily phone, email and online records of American citizens and foreigners alike, without any probable cause or suspicion of wrongdoing.
The Fourth of July honors that triumphant day in 1776 when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, asserting that America's thirteen colonies were free and independent from the tyrannical British rule. That our nation would establish a new Government under the principles that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Our nation's founders rejected the British Crown's "absolute despotism" and its "long train of abuses and usurpations" of Americans rights and state laws. Among the colonies' grievances against King George III were that he "obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers," "depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury" and abolished "our most valuable laws ... altering fundamentally the forms of our governments."
Prior to the Deceleration of Independence, in 1761, Boston lawyer James Otis spoke against overly-broad warrants issued by the British government. These Writs of Assistance allowed the crown's agents to search any house or ship they wished, without any specific reason. John Adams -- signer of the Declaration of Independence and our nation's second president -- said of Otis's speech, "Then and there, the child Independence was born."
Twelve years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence the U.S. Constitution was formally adopted, shortly followed by the ratification of the first ten amendments to that Constitution, the Bill of Rights. Those fundamental principles of liberty guided the American Revolution were enshrined in the Bill of Rights, preserving the personal freedoms of all American against any future tyrannies, abuses and usurpations of law.
Today, recent leaks have revealed that the National Security Agency, in cooperation with the FBI, is covertly carrying out at least two nationwide surveillance programs that collect information on the private calls and online activities of U.S. citizens and non-permanent residents alike. These programs are being carried out in secret partnership with some of the nation's top telecommunications and internet and technology companies.
That is why organizations like CAIR are celebrating Independence Day this year by rallying in support of the Bill of Rights and the Fourth Amendment. We rally under disheartening reports that our nation's national security or law enforcement agencies are engaged in domestic and international spying programs that undermine the core constitutional protections of privacy and prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.
Through secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court orders, the federal government is obtaining -- without any probable cause or suspicion of wrongdoing -- data from millions of American Verizon Business Network Services customers and user account information from Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Microsoft (Hotmail, etc.), Apple, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype and AOL. It is strongly suspected that the federal government is also collecting call data from all other major phone carriers.
While some in Congress and the White House say that these spying programs are lawful under the Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, CAIR and the civil rights community believe that the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is clear: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause. ..."
Again, CAIR urges the president and Congress to establish clear criteria for how such communication records are collected and for how long they can be stored. Congress should amend of section 215 of the Patriot Act to enact better safeguards that protect Americans from such abuses, and commit to full public disclosure and transparency by declassifying aspects of the spying programs.
Legislative initiatives like these are necessary to protect the fourth amendment rights of all Americans, including members of the American Muslim community, which has been subject to unwarranted and discriminatory acts of surveillance for more than a decade. Furthermore, without additional information about the criteria that determine "foreignness," CAIR remains concerned that these programs could discriminate on the basis of religion and national origin.
CAIR is proud to be a part of that long tradition established by our nation's founding fathers in asserting the rights and liberties of our fellow citizens against the tyranny of government abuses and usurpations of law.
In celebration of the Fourth of July, we encourage you to read copies of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and take action by contacting the president and Congress to demand an immediate end to these abusive and unconstitutional government spying programs.
Robert McCaw is the government affairs manager at CAIR's national headquarters on Capitol Hill.