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Surveillance and Scandal
Posted on Jan 20, 2014
By Alfred McCoy, TomDispatch
Cycles of Surveillance
Over the past century, the tension between state expansion and citizen-driven contraction has pushed U.S. surveillance through a recurring cycle. First comes the rapid development of stunning counterintelligence techniques under the pressure of fighting foreign wars; next, the unchecked, usually illegal application of those surveillance technologies back home behind a veil of secrecy; and finally, belated, grudging reforms as press and public discover the outrageous excesses of the FBI, the CIA, or now, the NSA. In this hundred-year span—as modern communications advanced from the mail to the telephone to the Internet—state surveillance has leapt forward in technology’s ten-league boots, while civil liberties have crawled along behind at the snail’s pace of law and legislation.
The first and, until recently, most spectacular round of surveillance came during World War I and its aftermath. Fearing subversion by German-Americans after the declaration of war on Germany in 1917, the FBI and Military Intelligence swelled from bureaucratic nonentities into all-powerful agencies charged with extirpating any flicker of disloyalty anywhere in America, whether by word or deed. Since only 9% of the country’s population then had telephones, monitoring the loyalties of some 10 million German-Americans proved incredibly labor-intensive, requiring legions of postal workers to physically examine some 30 million first-class letters and 350,000 badge-carrying vigilantes to perform shoe-leather snooping on immigrants, unions, and socialists of every sort. During the 1920s, Republican conservatives, appalled by this threat to privacy, slowly began to curtail Washington’s security apparatus. This change culminated in Secretary of State Henry Stimson’s abolition of the government’s cryptography unit in 1929 with his memorable admonition, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”
In the next round of mass surveillance during World War II, the FBI discovered that the wiretapping of telephones produced an unanticipated byproduct with extraordinary potential for garnering political power: scandal. To block enemy espionage, President Franklin Roosevelt gave the FBI control over all U.S. counterintelligence and, in May 1940, authorized its director, J. Edgar Hoover, to engage in wiretapping.
What made Hoover a Washington powerhouse was the telephone. With 20% of the country and the entire political elite by now owning phones, FBI wiretaps at local switchboards could readily monitor conversations by both suspected subversives and the president’s domestic enemies, particularly leaders of the isolationist movement such as aviator Charles Lindbergh and Senator Burton Wheeler.
Even with these centralized communications, however, the Bureau still needed massive manpower for its wartime counterintelligence. Its staff soared from just 650 in 1924 to 13,000 by 1943. Upon taking office on Roosevelt’s death in early 1945, Harry Truman soon learned the extraordinary extent of FBI surveillance. “We want no Gestapo or Secret Police,” Truman wrote in his diary that May. “FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail.”
After a quarter of a century of warrantless wiretaps, Hoover built up a veritable archive of sexual preferences among America’s powerful and used it to shape the direction of U.S. politics. He distributed a dossier on Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson’s alleged homosexuality to assure his defeat in the 1952 presidential elections, circulated audio tapes of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philandering, and monitored President Kennedy’s affair with mafia mistress Judith Exner. And these are just a small sampling of Hoover’s uses of scandal to keep the Washington power elite under his influence.
“The moment [Hoover] would get something on a senator,” recalled William Sullivan, the FBI’s chief of domestic intelligence during the 1960s, “he’d send one of the errand boys up and advise the senator that ‘we’re in the course of an investigation, and we by chance happened to come up with this data on your daughter…’ From that time on, the senator’s right in his pocket.” After his death, an official tally found Hoover had 883 such files on senators and 722 more on congressmen.
Armed with such sensitive information, Hoover gained the unchecked power to dictate the country’s direction and launch programs of his choosing, including the FBI’s notorious Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) that illegally harassed the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements with black propaganda, break-ins, and agent provocateur-style violence.
At the end of the Vietnam War, Senator Frank Church headed a committee that investigated these excesses. “The intent of COINTELPRO,” recalled one aide to the Church investigation, “was to destroy lives and ruin reputations.” These findings prompted the formation, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, of “FISA courts” to issue warrants for all future national security wiretaps.
Surveillance in the Age of the Internet
Looking for new weapons to fight terrorism after 9/11, Washington turned to electronic surveillance, which has since become integral to its strategy for exercising global power.
In October 2001, not satisfied with the sweeping and extraordinary powers of the newly passed Patriot Act, President Bush ordered the National Security Agency to commence covert monitoring of private communications through the nation’s telephone companies without the requisite FISA warrants. Somewhat later, the agency began sweeping the Internet for emails, financial data, and voice messaging on the tenuous theory that such “metadata” was “not constitutionally protected.” In effect, by penetrating the Internet for text and the parallel Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) for voice, the NSA had gained access to much of the world’s telecommunications. By the end of Bush’s term in 2008, Congress had enacted laws that not only retrospectively legalized these illegal programs, but also prepared the way for NSA surveillance to grow unchecked.
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