A brief history of the U.S. surveillance state

Alfred McCoy over at TomDispatch.com has taken the time to provide us with a brief, sordid history of the U.S. surveillance state and proven, to me at least, that there is still much to learn about where we are and how we got here. I was surprised, for example, to discover that the path to an Orwellian future began in the late 19th century with our presence in the Philippines.

McCoy writes (and elaborates later in the piece):

In 1898, Washington occupied the Philippines and in the years that followed pacified its rebellious people, in part by fashioning the world’s first full-scale “surveillance state” in a colonial land. The illiberal lessons learned there then migrated homeward, providing the basis for constructing America’s earliest internal security and surveillance apparatus during World War I.  A half-century later, as protests mounted during the Vietnam War, the FBI, building on the foundations of that old security structure, launched large-scale illegal counterintelligence operations to harass antiwar activists, while President Richard Nixon’s White House created its own surveillance apparatus to target its domestic enemies.

Perhaps the most damaging [domestically speaking] interference via illegal government surveillance took place during the civil rights movement and amidst heavy war opposition.

In response to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s, the FBI deployed its COINTELPRO operation, using what Senator Frank Church’s famous investigative committee later called “unsavory and vicious tactics… including anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths.”

In assessing COINTELPRO’s 2,370 actions from 1960 to 1974, the Church Committee branded them a “sophisticated vigilante operation” that “would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity.” Significantly, even this aggressive Senate investigation did not probe Director Hoover’s notorious “private files” on the peccadilloes of leading politicians that had insulated his Bureau from any oversight for more than 30 years.

After New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh exposed illegal CIA surveillance of American antiwar activists in 1974, Senator Church’s committee and a presidential commission under Nelson Rockefeller investigated the Agency’s “Operation Chaos,” a program to conduct massive illegal surveillance of the antiwar protest movement, discovering a database with 300,000 names.  These investigations also exposed the excesses of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, forcing the Bureau to reform.

To prevent future abuses, President Jimmy Carter signed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978, creating a special court to approve all national security wiretaps.  In a bitter irony, Carter’s supposed reform ended up plunging the judiciary into the secret world of the surveillance managers where, after 9/11, it became a rubberstamp institution for every kind of state intrusion on domestic privacy.

It’s not all bleak. It turns out that Republicans of the early 20th century were actually a force of opposition to government sponsored violations of privacy.

In the aftermath of those wars, however, reformers pushed back against secret surveillance.  Republican privacy advocates abolished much of President Woodrow Wilson’s security apparatus during the 1920s, and Democratic liberals in Congress created the FISA courts in the 1970s in an attempt to prevent any recurrence of President Nixon’s illegal domestic wiretapping.

The two leading parties have, at times, agreed that unchecked government surveillance is a danger to all and took steps to prevent the massive levels of information gathering that we have today. For all the good it did, right? Unfortunately, public consent is a pretty large part of this history lesson. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have participated (and still do), perhaps misguidedly, in the surveilling of anti-war protesters, dissidents, and suspected terrorists. In the 20th century, remember, it was suspected communists and/or spies.

Just one example, as follows:

After the U.S. entered World War I in 1917 without an intelligence service of any sort, Colonel Van Deman brought his Philippine experience to bear, creating the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Division (MID) and so laying the institutional foundations for a future internal security state.

In collaboration with the FBI, he also expanded the MID’s reach through a civilian auxiliary organization, the American Protective League, whose 350,000 citizen-operatives amassed more than a million pages of surveillance reports on German-Americans in just 14 months, arguably the world’s most intensive feat of domestic surveillance ever.

This brief history is at turns horrifying and breathtaking. It seems to me the missing ingredient is a massive popular uprising against such illegal violations of our amendment and human rights. Much of what we have seen these past decades is apathy, as Mark Twain predicted.

During the U.S. conquest of the Philippines, Mark Twain wrote an imagined history of twentieth-century America.  In it, he predicted that a “lust for conquest” had already destroyed “the Great [American] Republic,” because  “trampling upon the helpless abroad had taught her, by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home.”

It’s true, sadly. Under President Obama, we have seen an unprecedented and largely unopposed prosecution of whistleblowers using the Espionage Act. There have been seven prosecutions thus far under Obama, preceded by only three since the law’s 1917 origins. As Linda Greene wrote back in 2011, proving once again the utter disconnect between what the president says to us and what he and those he appointed actually do:

When campaigning in 2008, Obama promised to protect whistleblowers, saying their “acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled,” ABC News’ Megan Chuchmach and Rhonda Schwartz reported on Aug. 4, 2009.

Regrettably, Campaign Obama is not around to protect the likes of Edward Snowden or Bradley Manning from either the media persecution or from government prosecution. It is difficult for an uniformed public to protest something they are unaware of, such as the NSA’s PRISM program. But it seems to me that when we allow the imprisonment and prosecution of those whistleblowers who seek to inform and empower us, we are granting the government permission to carry on with illegal acts of surveillance against us.

The people’s unspoken permission also sets the stage for our own possible imprisonment. When everything you say or do is subject to secret recordings and filed away in vast government-owned digital storage facilities, anything you have said or done can be used against you by a government with a history of “unsavory and vicious tactics… including anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths.”

At the very least, the mere possibility of such is an effective tool of suppression and submission, perhaps most starkly proven by how easy it was for the NSA to obtain near-total corporate complicity in illegal information gathering. And as McCoy’s history lesson teaches us, this is not just an American fear. U.S. surveillance is of global concern; it is a much-used weapon in our war chest, as it is with some foreign governments.

Perhaps it is time to learn from our history, both distant and recent past, and act upon what we learn…in large, unimpeachable bipartisan numbers.

Stacy Mergenthal (41 Posts)

Stacy Mergenthal is an activist for progressive causes and voice for the working class. She currently resides in Missouri with her family.