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Spying in defense of liberty

Barry Goldwater famously said that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice." But I suspect even the late Arizona senator and 1964 GOP presidential candidate might be creeped out if he knew about the privatization of Big Brother. Is it OK for private groups to infiltrate domestic citizen's groups? Is spying in defense of liberty a virtue or a vice?

Barry Goldwater famously said that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice." But I suspect even the late Arizona senator and 1964 GOP presidential candidate might be creeped out if he knew about the privatization of Big Brother. Is it OK for private groups to infiltrate domestic citizen's groups? Is spying in defense of liberty a virtue or a vice?

A recent revelation is in a new story from Mother Jones that reveals that a leading gun control advocate, Mary McFate, is apparently the same person as Mary Lou Sapone, "a self-described 'research consultant,' who for decades has covertly infiltrated citizens groups for private security firms hired by corporations that are targeted by activist campaigns. For some time, Sapone also worked for the National Rifle Association." She was active in anti-gun groups.

According to Mother Jones:

During Sapone's ascent through the ranks of the gun control movement, she worked for the NRA, according to a business associate. In a 2003 deposition, Tim Ward, who had been president of the Maryland-based security firm Beckett Brown International, said that the NRA had been "a client" of Sapone's. (As a subcontractor for BBI, Sapone had planted an operative within an environmental group in Lake Charles, Louisiana.) According to Ward, at his request Sapone had introduced BBI to the NRA in early 1999. And that introduction quickly paid off. Billing records obtained by Mother Jones indicate that between May 1999 and April 2000, the NRA paid BBI nearly $80,000 for various services.

In another 2003 deposition, Jay Bly, a former Secret Service officer who worked for BBI, was asked what type of work the security firm had done for the NRA, and he responded, "Those are very sensitive issues, and I'm just not comfortable going into it. I'm really not." Later in the deposition, Bly said, "I did a number of different things for the NRA in the area of investigation, the area of personal protection, in the area of event security, in the area of intelligence gathering, okay?"

Civil libertarians and gun rights advocates are always sounding alarms against government over-reach including electronic surveillance, eavesdropping, computer-tracked national ID cards, and invasions of privacy. Indeed, one of the purposes of the Second Amendment is to allow individuals to protect themselves. This kind of sleazy behavior undermines what that NRA is ostensibly in existence to protect, which is personal liberty against invasion and trespass. The use of spies, moles and infiltrators to weasel inside citizen's groups is scary, whether it's Big Brother's government, or his private business lobby.

Update: Here's some lovely news. Guess who's in the private intelligence business now? Blackwater.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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