Martin Luther King Jr., Subversives, and the PATRIOT Dragnet

In a superb column today, Alvaro Bedoya recalls the long, consistent history during which people of color and other minorities, including Martin Luther King, Jr., were targeted in the name of national security.

The FBI’s violations against King were undeniably tinged by what historian David Garrow has called “an organizational culture of like-minded white men.” But as Garrow and others have shown, the FBI’s initial wiretap requests—and then–Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s approval of them—were driven by a suspected tie between King and the Communist Party. It wasn’t just King; Cesar Chavez, the labor and civil rights leader, was tracked for years as a result of vague, confidential tips about “a communist background,” as were many others.

Many people know that during World War II, innocent Americans of Japanese descent were surveilled and detained in internment camps. Fewer people know that in the wake of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson openly feared that black servicemen returning from Europe would become “the greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America.” Around the same time, the Military Intelligence Division created a special “Negro Subversion” section devoted to spying on black Americans. Near the top of its list was W.E.B. DuBois, a “rank Socialist” whom they tracked in Paris for fear he would “attempt to introduce socialist tendencies at the Peace Conference.”

I think Bedoya, as many people do, gives FBI Director Jim Comey a big pass on surveillance due to the Director’s stunt of having agents-in-training study what the Bureau did to King. I have written about how Comey’s claim to caution in the face of the MLK example don’t hold up to the Bureau’s current, known activities.

Comey engages in similar obfuscation when he points to FBI’s treatment of Martin Luther King Jr., whose treatment at the hands of the FBI he holds up to FBI Agents as a warning. The FBI Director describes the unlimited amount of surveillance the Bureau subjected King to based solely on the signature of Hoover and the Attorney General  “Open-ended. No time limit. No space restriction. No review. No oversight.” While it is true that the FBI now gets court approval to track civil rights leaders, they do track them, especially in the Muslim community. And without oversight, the FBI can and does infiltrate houses of worship with informants, as they did with African-American churches during the Civil Rights movement. FBI can obtain phone and Internet metadata records without judicial oversight using National Security Letters — which they still can’t count accurately to fulfill congressionally mandated reporting. The FBI has many tools that evade the kind of oversight Comey described, and because of technology many of them are far more powerful than the tools wielded against Dr. King.

But I’m particularly interested in Bedoya’s reminder that the government targeted African Americans for surveillance as subversives in the wake of World War I.

The government’s practice of targeting specific kinds of people, often people of color, as subversives continued, after all. It’s something J. Edgar Hoover continued throughout his life, keeping a list of people to be rounded up if anything happened.

I’ve been thinking about that practice as I’ve been trying to explain, even to civil liberties supporters, why the current 2-degree targeted dragnet is still too invasive of privacy. We’ve been having this discussion for 2.5 years, and yet still most people don’t care that completely innocent people 2 degrees — 3, until 2014 — away from someone the government has a traffic-stop level of suspicion over will be subjected to the NSA’s “full analytic tradecraft.”

The discussion of a Subversives List makes me think of this article from 2007 (which I first wrote about here and here). The story explains that the thing that really freaked out the hospital “heroes” in 2004 was not the Internet dragnet itself, but instead the deployment of Stellar Wind against Main Core, which appears to be another name for this Subversives List.

While Comey, who left the Department of Justice in 2005, has steadfastly refused to comment further on the matter, a number of former government employees and intelligence sources with independent knowledge of domestic surveillance operations claim the program that caused the flap between Comey and the White House was related to a database of Americans who might be considered potential threats in the event of a national emergency. Sources familiar with the program say that the government’s data gathering has been overzealous and probably conducted in violation of federal law and the protection from unreasonable search and seizure guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment.

According to a senior government official who served with high-level security clearances in five administrations, “There exists a database of Americans, who, often for the slightest and most trivial reason, are considered unfriendly, and who, in a time of panic, might be incarcerated. The database can identify and locate perceived ‘enemies of the state’ almost instantaneously.” He and other sources tell Radar that the database is sometimes referred to by the code name Main Core. One knowledgeable source claims that 8 million Americans are now listed in Main Core as potentially suspect. In the event of a national emergency, these people could be subject to everything from heightened surveillance and tracking to direct questioning and possibly even detention.


Another well-informed source—a former military operative regularly briefed by members of the intelligence community—says this particular program has roots going back at least to the 1980s and was set up with help from the Defense Intelligence Agency. He has been told that the program utilizes software that makes predictive judgments of targets’ behavior and tracks their circle of associations with “social network analysis” and artificial intelligence modeling tools.

“The more data you have on a particular target, the better [the software] can predict what the target will do, where the target will go, who it will turn to for help,” he says. “Main Core is the table of contents for all the illegal information that the U.S. government has [compiled] on specific targets.” An intelligence expert who has been briefed by high-level contacts in the Department of Homeland Security confirms that a database of this sort exists, but adds that “it is less a mega-database than a way to search numerous other agency databases at the same time.”


The following information seems to be fair game for collection without a warrant: the e-mail addresses you send to and receive from, and the subject lines of those messages; the phone numbers you dial, the numbers that dial in to your line, and the durations of the calls; the Internet sites you visit and the keywords in your Web searches; the destinations of the airline tickets you buy; the amounts and locations of your ATM withdrawals; and the goods and services you purchase on credit cards. All of this information is archived on government supercomputers and, according to sources, also fed into the Main Core database.


Main Core also allegedly draws on four smaller databases that, in turn, cull from federal, state, and local “intelligence” reports; print and broadcast media; financial records; “commercial databases”; and unidentified “private sector entities.” Additional information comes from a database known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, which generates watch lists from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for use by airlines, law enforcement, and border posts. According to the Washington Post, the Terrorist Identities list has quadrupled in size between 2003 and 2007 to include about 435,000 names. The FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center border crossing list, which listed 755,000 persons as of fall 2007, grows by 200,000 names a year. A former NSA officer tells Radar that the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, using an electronic-funds transfer surveillance program, also contributes data to Main Core, as does a Pentagon program that was created in 2002 to monitor anti-war protestors and environmental activists such as Greenpeace.

Given what we now know about the dragnet, this article is at once less shocking and more so. Much of the information included — phone records and emails — as well as the scale of the known lists — such as the No Fly List — are all known. Others, such as credit card purchases, aren’t included in what we know about the dragnet, though we have suspected. The purported inclusion of peace protestors, in what appears to be a reference to CIFA, is something I’ll return to.

Mostly, though, this article takes the generally now-known scope of the dragnet and claim that it serves as the function that those Subversives lists from days past have. As such (and assuming it is true in general outline, and I have significant reason to believe it is) it does two things for our understanding. First, it illustrates what I have tried to in the past, what it means to be exposed to the full complement of NSA’s analytical tradecraft. But it also reframes what our understanding of what 2-degree of suspicion from a traffic stop means.

Whether or not this Main Core description is accurate, it invites us to think of this 2-degree dragnet as a nomination process to be on the Subversives list. Unlike in Hoover’s day, when someone had to keep up a deck of index cards, here it’s one interlocking set of data, all coded to serve both as a list and a profiling system for anyone on that list.

To the extent that this dragnet still exists (or has been magnified with the rollout of XKeyscore), and it absolutely does for Muslims 2 degrees from a terrorist suspect, this is what the dragnet is all about: getting you on that list, which serves as a magnet for all the rest of your information to be sucked in and retained, so that if the government ever feels like it has to start cracking down on dissidents, it has that list, and a ton of demographic data, ready at had.

Update: See this Global Research post on COG programs.

13 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    “… According to a senior government official who served with high-level security clearances in five administrations, “There exists a database of Americans, who, often for the slightest and most trivial reason, are considered unfriendly, and who, in a time of panic, might be incarcerated. The database can identify and locate perceived ‘enemies of the state’ almost instantaneously.” He and other sources tell Radar that the database is sometimes referred to by the code name Main Core…. ”

    democracy of the american kind is a valuable form of govetnment so long as the people are allowed to change leaders as they see fit (this includes, alas, as they are manipulated to see fit).

    the “main core” program is likely designed to sweep up opposition (to government) leadership of all kinds, leadership that might depose an existing government.

    the main core data base would be the memory of the brain of an authoritarian government.

    this is the “core” reason why all aspects of government electronic surveillance must always be curtailed to specific individuals for whom a specific credible warrant has been issued, and why all government surveillance program of any kind must be continuously monitored by individuals outside the collecting government agencies.

    if “main core” still exists or can be easily resurrected then it only requires a cheney doppleganger to turn the u. s. into a velvet (laws-and-courts-using) dictatorship.

  2. orionATL says:

    fbi overflights with surveillance cameras over baltimore, md. or feguson, mo. could provide useful input to main core.

  3. P J Evans says:

    So are they using all this stuff, all these tools, on the Dildo Militia in Oregon, or are they getting a pass because Conservative White Guys?

    • emptywheel says:

      First, I added a half line nothing that this–or something like it–clearly does still exist for Muslims.

      But not necessarily for Dildo Terrorists.

      I suspect two things have been going on with this kind of data collection. First, for non-terrorists, more of it can be done under EO 12333. So it could apply to any range of people, but you’re far more likely to get put in it if you’ve got that first tie to a terrorist. So ACLU lawyers, for example, will be generating a lot of EO 12333 stuff (including that triggered to Snowden), but probably got in there the first time because they represent alleged terrorists.

      Since 2008 (and really since well before them) they’ve moved to replicate this authority at FBI. And FBI would be able to do this with anyone under a real investigation — so Dildo Terrorists surely count. But again, you’re just going to have far more data coming in and out if you’re considered an International Terrorist. (I think there have been some real changes in this map in the last year, which I’ll get to at some point, but for now let’s assume there’s a Domestic/International Terror distinction.)

      The FBI DOES investigate domestic terrorists and other dangerous armed groups. It’s just the input is going to be less (because they trigger international collection without a warrant), and the trigger for First Amendment protections is likely higher.

  4. galljdaj says:

    ‘Statistics’! once applied/learned become the mode of operation(s). Control Limits and ‘referrals’ become systemic as you have seen torture and police conduct.

    You ought to have concluded the Internet is no longer safe for honest Peoples. The World’s Best Tool has been turned into the worst alongside of the ‘bomb’.

  5. scribe says:

    Kinda starts putting Obama’s/Clinton’s/Bloomberg’s demand that all firearm “transfers” be run through the FBI Instant Background check computers – where they’re doubtless siphoned off into Main Core – and the opposition thereto in a little different light, doesn’t it?
    Like maybe they want to know which civilians ever held, not just owned, a gun.

    • emptywheel says:

      You know I’ve been suspicious has been misusing surveillance authorities to compile a gun registry, even while I might like there to be closer tracking on who has guns.

      But I think, for many reasons, the surveillance you envision would work the other way: I think this is (and always has been, going back to JEH) all relational, and once the government develops an interest because of those relations, it will cross-reference with things like any gun registry.

      So the first outrage is against the First Amendment, and only secondarily against the Second.

      • scribe says:

        [now, to try to reconstitute a good comment that disappeared when the bus hit a pothole and knocked out the wifi]
        The fact of the matter is that the entire Bill of Rights is, and has been for decades, under a deliberate and sustained attack. It’s taken as a given that all the transfers run through the insta-check since it was created in 1994 have been recorded. It’s just that the government can’t admit that it’s been doing that because recording those insta-checks is specifically prohibited by statute. That provision was part of the logrolling that went on in creating the 1994 law*.
        But, more to the point, too many people decry the NRA and other gun rights organizations for their narrow focus on the Second Amendment, saying things along the lines of “to them it’s the only one”, yadda yadda. Those same people often are at least as monomaniacal about another Amendment, usually the First. For every NRA or similar organization there’s a Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press or PEN or Freedom From Religion Foundation, and that goes on the national, state and local levels as well.
        It would be quite helpful if people were to realize there is a certain division of labor, if you will, in defending the Bill of Rights. Different people have different interests and skills and expertise. It would be further helpful if people trying to defend their particular favorite(s) in the Bill of Rights would remember to not spend their time, effort, money and vigor on trashing someone else trying to defend a different part of the Bill against the same government employees they’re fighting. [After all, Brennan took his oath of office on a copy of the Constitution without the Bill of Rights, which I believe his behavior shows is the one he likes best. Obama and Biden smilingly seemed to like that one, too.]
        I happen to like all of the Bill of Rights. I try to hold my tongue when someone espouses a position on why their favorite right and their “extreme-appearing” interpretation of it should Rule. I’ll try to hew to legal precedent to bring them back to earth. But I also do not hesitate to criticize government officials when they seek to infringe on some right or another, be it First, Second, Fourth, or any of the rest.


        * Another was the 3-day period after which the transfer goes through, something HRC wants to repeal: without it in place, history and experience teach that the police authorities running the permitting system would finish the background checks “when they got around to it”. In some states, a statutory 30 day limit is laughed at – up to a year is common and, if you complain or ask about the delay, it comes back “denied”.

  6. orionATL says:

    8 million americans possibly listed in “main core” can’t just be muslims.

    is emptywheel on that list?

    ron paul or justin amash?

    aaron swartz?

    glenn greenwald?

    ron wayden? mark udall?

    thomas drake?

    eff or aclu leaders?

    alicia garza?

    was saul alinsky included?

    roy bourgeois?

    charles or david koch?

    john l. lewis samuel gomphers?

    henry ford or j. d. rockefeller?

    is there any reason to believe such a list would focus on crackpot leadership like ammon bundy when there are far more “dangerous”, non-muslim voices that could actually challenge an entrenched authotitarian government.

    then there is the select group of wealthy like the koch bros. who buy govetnment. are they worthy of inclusion?

  7. orionATL says:

    the operational core:

    “… In the event of a national emergency, these people could be subject to everything from heightened surveillance and tracking to direct questioning and possibly even detention…

    who declares a national emergency? why, that would be some el supremo, wouldn’t it.

  8. gmoke says:

    “But I’m particularly interested in Bedoya’s reminder that the government targeted African Americans for surveillance as subversives in the wake of World War I.”

    Having gone through the archives of the NY Daily Call, the Socialist Party of the time, from 1917 through 1920 or so, I can assure you that the original Red Scare and Palmer Raids were much rougher than anything we’ve probably seen since. Thousands of “suspicious aliens” were deported. People were jailed. Offices and homes were ransacked.

    And all this came on the heels of the Espionage Act which saw EV Debs locked up in Federal prison for speaking against WWI longer than the USA fought WWI. Many others were harassed and jailed or threatened with jail as well. Publications were censored and kept out of the mails by postal inspectors. The hidden tyranny of this time was broad and deep and now almost completely forgotten.

    • Jim White says:

      Jay Feldman’s Manufacturing Hysteria covered that very well and brought the practice forward through to the infiltration of the Black Panthers and other abuses of society by government agents.

  9. scribe says:

    Or, for that matter, how all your prescriptions go into a computerized government database, available to the FBI in seconds.
    Not to mention those nifty portable electronic health records.

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