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Surveillance Blowback

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Posted on Jul 16, 2013
Nebulon5 (CC BY 2.0)

By Alfred W. McCoy, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

Starting in 1901, the first U.S. governor-general (and future president) William Howard Taft drafted draconian sedition legislation for the islands and established a 5,000-man strong Philippines Constabulary.  In the process, he created a colonial surveillance state that ruled, in part, thanks to the agile control of information, releasing damning data about enemies while suppressing scandals about allies.

When the Associated Press’s Manila bureau chief reported critically on these policies, Taft’s allies dug up dirt on this would-be critic and dished it out to the New York press.  On the other hand, the Division of Military Information compiled a scandalous report about the rising Filipino politician Manuel Quezon, alleging a premarital abortion by his future first lady.  Quezon, however, served the Constabulary as a spy, so this document remained buried in U.S. files, assuring his unchecked ascent to become the first president of the Philippines in 1935.

American Blueprint

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.” Indeed, just a decade after Twain wrote those prophetic words, colonial police methods came home to serve as a template for the creation of an American internal security apparatus in wartime.

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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.

After the Armistice in 1918, Military Intelligence joined the FBI in two years of violent repression of the American left marked by the notorious Luster raids in New York City, J. Edgar Hoover’s “Palmer Raids” in cities across the northeast and the suppression of union strikes from New York City to Seattle.

When President Wilson left office in 1921, incoming Republican privacy advocates condemned his internal security regime as intrusive and abusive, forcing the Army and the FBI to cut their ties to patriotic vigilantes. In 1924, Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone, worrying that “a secret police may become a menace to free government,” announced “the Bureau of Investigation is not concerned with political or other opinions of individuals.” Epitomizing the nation’s retreat from surveillance, Secretary of War Henry Stimson closed the Military Intelligence cipher section in 1929, saying famously, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

After retiring at the rank of major general that same year, Van Deman and his wife continued from their home in San Diego to coordinate an informal intelligence exchange system, compiling files on 250,000 suspected “subversives.”  They also took reports from classified government files and slipped them to citizen anti-communist groups for blacklisting. In the 1950 elections, for instance, Representative Richard Nixon reportedly used Van Deman’s files to circulate “pink sheets” at rallies denouncing California Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, his opponent in a campaign for a Senate seat, launching a victorious Nixon on the path to the presidency.

From retirement, Van Deman, in league with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, also proved crucial at a 1940 closed-door conference that awarded the FBI control over domestic counterintelligence.  The Army’s Military Intelligence, and its successors, the CIA and NSA, were restricted to foreign espionage, a division of tasks that would hold, at least in principle, until the post-9/11 years. So armed, during World War II the FBI used warrantless wiretaps, “black bag” break-ins, and surreptitious mail opening to track suspects, while mobilizing more than 300,000 informers to secure defense plants against wartime threats that ultimately proved “negligible.”

The Vietnam Years

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.

How the Global War on Terror Came Home

As its pacification wars in Afghanistan and Iraq sank into bloody quagmires, Washington brought electronic surveillance, biometric identification, and unmanned aerial vehicles to the battlefields.  This trio, which failed to decisively turn the tide in those lands, nonetheless now undergirds a global U.S. surveillance apparatus of unequalled scope and unprecedented power.


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