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Thread: My Family Story of Love, the Mob, and Government Surveillance

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    My Family Story of Love, the Mob, and Government Surveillance

    My Family Story of Love, the Mob, and Government Surveillance

    The whole truth took me decades to learn.

    Illustration: Joan Wong; Associated Press; Bettmann / Getty

    On June 16, 1975, when I was 12 years old, my mother, Brenda, married Charles “Chuckie” O’Brien, who a few weeks later would become a leading suspect in the notorious disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, the former president of the Teamsters union.

    Chuckie had known Hoffa since he was a boy, loved him like a father, and was his closest aide in the 1950s and ’60s, when Hoffa was the nation’s best-known and most feared labor leader. Soon after Hoffa went missing, on July 30, 1975, the FBI zeroed in on Chuckie. Chuckie had been by Hoffa’s side during Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s long pursuit of Hoffa for Mob ties and union corruption, and in 1967 it was Chuckie who had accompanied Hoffa when his boss reported to federal marshals and began a nearly five-year prison term. But in late 1974, Chuckie and Hoffa had had a falling out, and a slew of circumstantial evidence connected Chuckie to the disappearance. The FBI quickly concluded that Chuckie had picked up Hoffa and driven him to his death—a theory that has currency to this day, at least in the public mind.
    The government never proved Chuckie’s involvement, and Hoffa’s remains have never been found. But the Hoffa investigation enveloped Chuckie and eventually ruined his life. In the midst of this maelstrom, Chuckie and I grew close. He formally adopted me when I was 13, and found time despite his legal troubles to give me the love and attention I had never received from my biological father. I revered Chuckie in my teens. The wise guys I met through him were kind and, to my young eyes, upright gentlemen. And it was thrilling to be associated with the Teamsters union in an era—typified by C. W. McCall’s hit song “Convoy” and the adventures of Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit—that glorified trucker defiance of authority.
    When I left home for college, I read for the first time books that confidently pinned Hoffa’s disappearance on Chuckie. I also came to understand that the Mafia was real and dangerous, and that Chuckie had a history of criminal acts ranging from theft to assault. By the time I went to law school, I had grown apprehensive about Chuckie’s potential impact on my life. In my mid-20s I broke with him, brutally and completely. This proved to be a good career move; otherwise, I never would have obtained the security clearances I later needed for several government jobs, which culminated in a 2003 appointment by George W. Bush to be the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
    I did not know much about the history of government surveillance, or the government’s accompanying abuse of the law, when I began working at the Justice Department.It was during that Justice Department stint, more than 15 years after I renounced Chuckie, that I reconsidered some of the things he had told me in my teens about executive-branch abuses and concealments. That reconsideration would eventually lead me to seek his forgiveness and then, after years of conversations and research, to conclude that he was innocent in Hoffa’s disappearance. What led me down this improbable path was my work on Stellarwind, President Bush’s post-9/11 anti-terrorist program of warrantless surveillance activities inside the United States, conducted by the National Security Agency, which swept up vast amounts of information about innocent Americans.

    In my youth, Chuckie had spewed bile about Bobby Kennedy’s surveillance abuses against him, Hoffa, and their friends in organized crime. “They can break every law there is, but they got ‘backup,’ ” Chuckie would say, referring to the government’s tendency to skirt the law in secret even as it enforced the law against others, and to justify its actions by claiming executive authority.

    For decades, I had dismissed Chuckie’s assessment as uninformed and self-serving. But while working on Stellarwind, I discovered that he had been right. Executive-branch lawyers had approved the program in secret even though it was difficult to square with congressional restrictions on government surveillance. Such “backup,” I came to realize, was a crucial element in a recurrent pattern in the history of government surveillance: The executive branch, responsible for security, employs the latest technology against an enemy within, and in the process, it often quietly bends or breaks the law; after scandalous revelations, it secures new legislation to put the surveillance practices on a sounder legal footing; finally, a “new normal” is established before the cycle begins anew.
    I did not know much about the history of government surveillance, or the government’s accompanying abuse of the law, when I began work on Stellarwind. Much of that history, especially about the Justice Department’s accommodating role, is still not widely understood.
    Not where I breathe, but where I love, I live...
    Robert Southwell, S.J.

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    Friday, October 11th, 2019 @ 9:51 PM
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    But the privacy harms are the same whether the target is guilty or innocent, bad or good.
    Government is never your friend. You can have a mutually beneficial alliance right up until the point where some bureaucrat decides that the ends justify the means and screws you right into the pavement.
    "Alexa, slaughter the fatted calf."

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