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Spying: It Can Happen to Me; It Can Happen to You

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When I talk about NSA spying and mass warrantless surveillance, I’m pretty sure most people react something like this: yeah, it’s bad, but it doesn’t have any direct impact on me. I mean, why would the government ever bother to spy on me? Really, that’s for the bad guys, or the Muslims. It can’t happen to me.

I bet Pete Seeger probably thought something along those lines. After all, he was just a normal American boy, who happened to have a great deal of musical talent. In fact, you may be familiar with Seeger. The folk singer penned several classics including Turn, Turn, Turn, and Where have All the Flowers Gone.

Turns out, the military, the FBI and even the CIA spied on Seeger for at least 30 years.

All because of a letter.

You see, Seeger had the audacity to write a letter of protest to the California American Legion in 1942 after the organization adopted a resolution “advocating deportation of all Japanese, citizens or not, and barring all Japanese descendants from citizenship.”

“Dear Sirs –

“I felt shocked, outraged, and disgusted to read that the California American Legion voted to 1) deport all Japanese after the war, citizen or not, 2) Bar all Japanese descendants from citizenship!!

“We, who may have to give our lives in this great struggle—we’re fighting precisely to free the world of such Hitlerism, such narrow jingoism.

“If you deport Japanese, why not Germans, Italians, Rumanians, Hungarians, and Bulgarians?

“If you bar from citizenship descendants of Japanese, why not descendants of English? After all, we once fought with them too.

“America is great and strong as she is because we have so far been a haven to all oppressed.

“I felt sick at heart to read of this matter.

“Yours truly,

“Pvt. Peter Seeger”

The California American Legion forwarded his letter to the FBI. That kicked off an investigation and on and off surveillance that lasted into the 1970s. Mother Jones obtained more than 1,700 pages of documents from the FBI detailing its investigation into Seeger’s affairs. The AP summarized it this way:

“In a security investigation triggered by a wartime letter he wrote denouncing a proposal to deport all Japanese-Americans, the Army intercepted Seeger’s mail to his fiancee, scoured his school records, talked to his father, interviewed an ex-landlord and questioned his pal Woody Guthrie, according to FBI files obtained by The Associated Press. Investigators concluded that Seeger’s association with known communists and his Japanese-American fiancee pointed to a risk of divided loyalty.”

According to the Mother Jones article, a military intelligence agent visited Seeger’s apartment. He wrote that he’d spotted a large guitar that bore an inscription: “This machine kills Fascists.” Ryan added that he believed “this bears out the belief that the Almanac Players were active singing Communist songs and spreading propaganda.”

The probing continued after WWII, according to Mother Jones.

“After the war, Seeger remained an FBI target. It was a time of communist hunting. Confidential informants had fingered Seeger as a party member or sympathizer, and throughout the 1950s the FBI generated hundreds of reports on Seeger. The bureau closely tracked his musical performances and his appearances at political events. It monitored his associations with groups and persons suspected of being linked to or controlled by the Communist Party. FBI agents called his booking agency and pretended to be people who wanted to arrange a Seeger performance in order to collect information on his travels within the United States and overseas. The burgeoning folk music world overlapped with the progressive movement (which the bureau saw as riddled with and dominated by commies) and Seeger was at the nexus.”

Stop for a moment and think about this. What would your “associations” say about you? What about the websites you visit? Or the text messages you send? Or your emails? Have you ever questioned a government policy? What if Trump ascends to the presidency? Could a Facebook post opposing deportation of Muslims trigger a probe into your life? Or maybe your support for deporting Muslims could land you on some kind Obama list.

Seeger’s experience reveals two important truths.

  1. The American government spies on Americans.
  2. You can never know what kind of associations or beliefs will make you a target. It all depends on who holds power.

The only way to truly protect your privacy is to dismantle the surveillance state. As long as it exists, it will be used to violate your rights. You can count on it.

It happened to Seeger. It can happen to me. It can happen to you.

“Seeger was 94 years old when he died. His wide-ranging impact on popular culture, music, and politics had survived all the efforts—behind closed doors and in the public—to brand him a subversive and an enemy of freedom. This was seven decades after he first became a target of government snoops merely because he was upset about a racist and unconstitutional idea and, as a private citizen, wrote a letter about it.”