State Secrets: Police Surveillance in America
The Glass House Tapes
The makers of the radical movements of the Sixties experienced political repression as heathens encountered religion: with awe, resignation, and dependence. In the beginning, the State revealed its terrible, almost magical power to harass, isolate, and ultimately destroy insurgent forces. That begat the outbreaks of “paranoia” endemic to the movements in the latter years of the decade. At last, some radicals came to believe that the repression was itself a validation of their strategies and even a justification for their politics.
Like sinners and shrivers, the new subversives and their scourges were bound together in an ecology of surveillance and security. Political groups checked their own reality by the amount of police attention they received. An organization possessed of a bona fide infiltrator found not only status in the movement but a sense of historical importance. The complementary needs of the hunter and his quarry, and the spy and his mark apply to political relationships: there’s the well-known story of the exiled Bakunin and his tsarist police agent flirting, as it were, in the cafés of Switzerland and exchanging touching personal favors for many years. Upon the old anarchist’s death, the lifelong agent slid into a state of deep grief and could not be consoled for his loss.
It is not likely that the FBI, military intelligence, local police “red squads,” and the twenty-odd agencies, plumbers, and snoopers who comprise the national surveillance system in America grieved mightily over the demise of the organized New Left. But it’s true that the system’s primary justification for existence faded with the end of the Sixties, and no doubt the lives and careers of the agents involved deteriorated as well. Within the resulting bureaucratic void the exposures of “Watergate” activities could more easily emerge: no longer was there a rationalization for them nor were there “security” reasons for keeping the lid on.
In some sense, the national intelligence and surveillance edifice constructed by successive administrations and by a variety of local and specialized agencies was a successful barrier to the development of a permanent radical movement. The power of State security forces to badger activists and undermine their constituencies, though not always terrible and hardly magical, distracted radicals from politically serious projects. For a long time, their only important tactics involved “organizing around” one or another trial, grand jury inquiry, or police raid. ‘ ‘T D A’ ‘—The Day After—demonstrations were standard actions following the completion of court cases. Fears of that legendary “FBI agent behind every mailbox” paralyzed organizational work and diverted much energy to security checking and rumor sifting.
But in another way, that State security edifice was not much more than a house of cards. Its strength came as much from the exaggerated fears of the New Left activists as from impenetrable intelligence techniques. There simply were not vast armies of police spies with sensors in their socks, taps on all telephones, and cameras in every window slit recording the minutiae of protest planning from Montgomery …