We know the NSA has been vacuuming up personal digital data like an obsessive-compulsive house cleaner. What we don’t know is whom the feds have been targeting, and why, as author and journalist Seth Rosenfeld points out in an op-ed piece this week in the Los Angeles Times.

And it’s high time we did, he argues in convincing fashion.

Rosenfeld is the author of “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power,” which won the 2013 Pen Center USA Award in the “research nonfiction” category. In the op-ed, Rosenfeld details a dark history of government surveillance of American citizens, and notes that it took the Church Committee in the days of post-Watergate cynicism toward government to determine the assaults on civil liberties that occurred under the guise of national security. From the article:

It found that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI spied on hundreds of thousands of Americans who dissented against government policy, on the pretext that they were part of a Kremlin-controlled plot.

The bureau went beyond surveillance to mount, in the committee’s words, a “sophisticated vigilante operation” called COINTELPRO to “disrupt” and “neutralize” dissent, turning counterintelligence techniques developed for use against foreign enemies on students protesting the Vietnam War, civil rights groups and nonviolent leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.

FBI officials went so far as to foment violence between the Black Panthers and a rival black power group, United Slaves, in Southern California, the committee found, and then proudly claimed credit for shootings and beatings.

It’s an ugly history, and unfortunately one that informs the present, as revelations of the government’s planting of spies within the peace (see the last item here) and Occupy movements have shown. Yet as Rosenfeld argues, we still don’t know the details of what the government is doing to us, in the name of our own security.

Rosenfeld calls for a new version of the Church Committee to start shining a light into the government’s darkest corners to get answers to some specific questions.

Congress should promptly conduct hearings and demand to know not only what the NSA is collecting but how its customer agencies are using it:

• Is the NSA again monitoring American citizens and organizations engaged in dissent, such as the Occupy movement and other groups that have come under federal scrutiny?

• Is the agency watching immigrants in the U.S., such as Muslim communities that have been the scene of invasive FBI investigations?

• Is the NSA being deployed to gather intelligence from academic communities, which attract people of many creeds and are natural sites of dissent?

• Which Americans have the NSA’s customer agencies requested information about, and to what end?

Congress must be insistent, and it must use subpoena power, especially because intelligence officials have repeatedly misled Congress, the courts and the public about the NSA’s doings.

Unfortunately, this Congress, with its obscene partisanship and willingness to harm the country for the sake of some policy points, wouldn’t be the most reliable mechanism for truth finding. Any investigative committee that would involve Rep. Darrell Issa or any of the other right-wing witch hunters would focus less on determining facts than on game playing. And our civil liberties are too important to be used as a game piece.

But what other recourse is there?

—Posted by Scott Martelle.

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