Snowden and the South's history of spying

The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was a secret spy agency created by the state of Mississippi to maintain white supremacy during the 1950s and '60s. (Image is a still from the Independent Lens documentary, "Spies of Mississippi.")

By Joe Atkins, Labor South

Yours truly was on a panel titled "What We Learn from the Snowden/NSA Files" held at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at the University of Mississippi March 19.

Also on the panel were: Mike German, former FBI agent and former senior counsel of the ACLU and currently a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University; and Matthew Hall, senior associate dean at the University of Mississippi School of Law. The moderator was Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales, dean of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at the University of Mississippi.

Given the history in Mississippi and the South of state-backed spying on innocent citizens, Southerners should be particularly sensitive to the sprawling international snooping and spying on private citizens by the National Security Agency that whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed last year.

Snowden, a North Carolina native given refuge for one year by the Russian government, appeared recently by video link at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, and urged citizens to assert their privacy rights against an overreaching government that seeks to know what we talk about on our cell phones and access on the Internet.

I pointed out that I reside in a state (Mississippi) where a government-funded spy agency, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, collected information on private citizens during the civil rights movement with the direct intention of using it to intimidate, threaten, and damage those citizens promoting racial integration. More than 138,000 pages of secret, sealed documents compiled by the Sovereignty Commission were ultimately released. Like the Stasi in the former East Germany and other spy agencies, the Sovereignty Commission was particularly interested in private sexual information that it could use to threaten or silence dissidents. NSA files are also believed to contain such information.

Former NSA official Bill Binney, who helped establish the agency’s surveillance program, recently said the United States has already become a "police state," something Mississippi in many ways was in the 1960s. Binney said much of the NSA's collected data has been funneled to law enforcement agencies across the land to assist them in gathering evidence and other information -- without warrants -- to use against citizens in criminal or other legal cases.

Is it any accident that the United States has 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population. One in four adult citizens in this country has a police record. Snowden's NSA revelations may be telling us why. By the way, Louisiana and Mississippi lead the nation in putting people in prison.

I'll be writing more about this later, but here is the link to our recent panel, where Mike German and I took Snowden's side on the issue, and Matthew Hall took the position that he is a villain.

Here's the video of the panel discussion: