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Tomgram: Stephan Salisbury, Keeping an Eye on Everyone

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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Let H. David Kotz put American surveillance activities in context by focusing our attention on what this government hasn't spent much time looking at while it was putting its 24/7 efforts into watching the rest of us. Kotz is the inspector general for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and last week he arrived on Capitol Hill for another round of damning testimony on his bumbling employer, the nation's top financial regulator. It was Kotz who, in a 456-page report released last year, revealed the SEC's spectacular failure to uncover Bernie Madoff's $50 billion Ponzi scheme, the largest in history, despite mountains of clues and tips. Now, Kotz laid bare for a Senate subcommittee the SEC's pathetic investigation of Texas financier Allen Stanford's $8 billion Ponzi scheme, a staggering monument to fraud and deception built over nearly two decades.

Kotz's report unearthed plenty of gems. For instance, an SEC examiner in Fort Worth, Texas, described Stanford's investor return rate as "absolutely ludicrous" and, as early as 1997, suspected the wealthy Texan of running a scam. (The commission wouldn't file a suit until 12 years -- and billions of dollars of investors' money -- later.) Or that the enforcement chief in the SEC's Fort Worth office, Spencer Barasch, had blocked six different opportunities to investigate Stanford. Or that after seven years of stymieing the commission's efforts, Barasch left the SEC and immediately sought to represent Stanford as his counsel in -- you guessed it -- the SEC's fraud suit.

As in his report on Madoff, Kotz painfully illustrated how our financial watchdogs, from examiners on the ground to executives in Washington, flubbed one of the biggest fraud cases in American history. If only the federal government were half as rabid about sniffing out Ponzi and pyramid schemes as it is in "protecting" our national security, where no lengths are ever too great, including secretly monitoring screenings of the documentary Gasland, a documentary film about the dangers of natural gas drilling. As Stephan Salisbury, author of Mohamed's Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland, points out, a rash of recent controversies has further illuminated the widening gyre of the American surveillance state, which weekly threatens to reach ever further into our daily lives. Andy

Surveillance, America's Pastime
A Hall of Shame of State Snooping, Prying, and Informing Aimed at Destroying the Fabric of Civil Society

By Stephan Salisbury

The dried blood on the concrete floor is there for all to see, a stain forever marking the spot on a Memphis motel balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr. lay mortally wounded by a sniper's bullet.

It is a stark and ghostly image speaking to the sharp pain of absence. King is gone. His aides are gone. Only the stain remains. What now?

That image is, of course, a photograph taken by Ernest C. Withers, Memphis born and bred, and known as the photographer of the civil rights movement. He was there at the Lorraine Motel, as he had been at so many other critical places, recording iconic images of those tumultuous years.

In addition to photographing moments large and small in the struggle for black civil rights in the South, Withers had another job. He was an informer for the FBI, passing along information on the doings of King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Ben Hooks, and other leaders of the movement. He reported on meetings he attended as a photographer, welcomed in by those he knew so intimately. He passed along photos of events and gatherings to his handler, Special Agent William H. Lawrence of the FBI's Memphis office. He named names and sketched out plans.

In an exhaustive recent report, the Memphis Commercial Appeal detailed Withers's undercover activities, provoking a pained and complex response from the many who knew him and were involved in the civil rights movement. His family simply refuses to believe that the paper's report could be accurate. On the other hand, Andrew Young, with King during those last moments, accepts Withers's career as an informant, saying it just doesn't bother him. Civil rights leaders, including King, viewed Withers as crucial to the movement's struggle to portray itself accurately in Jet, Ebony, and other black journals. In that Withers was successful -- and the rest, Young suggests, doesn't matter. Besides, he told the Commercial Appeal, they had nothing to hide. "I don't think Dr. King would have minded him making a little money on the side."

Activist and comedian Dick Gregory, hearing Young's comments, turned on his old comrade. "We are talking about a guy hired by the FBI to destroy us and the fact that Andy could say that means there must be a deep hatred down inside of him," he said. "If he feels that way about King only God knows what he feels about the rest of us."

This is the way it is with informers, so useful to reckless law enforcement authorities and employed by the tens of thousands as the secret shock troops of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Surveillance has multiple uses, not the least of which is to sow mistrust, which in turn eats at the cohesion of families, social and political movements, and ultimately the fabric of community itself.

D'Army Bailey, a former Memphis judge and target of FBI surveillance in the 1960s, told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that the use of informers in everyday life ruptured fundamental civic bonds, fomenting deep suspicion and mistrust. "It's something you would expect in the most ruthless totalitarian regimes. Once that trust is shattered that doesn't go away."

Earl Caldwell, a former New York Times reporter and now a professor of journalism at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University, pointed out that the black community in the South in the 1960s granted a special trust to black journalists. Indeed, some of those journalists took out an ad in black newspapers in February 1970 pledging not to spy or inform or betray that trust.

"If all that we've been told through these documents that have been released, if that's true, then it puts a... very, very, very heavy, heavy mark not just on [Withers] and his work but on the trust that the black journalists made many years ago with the black community," Caldwell said.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 
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