Friday, May 26, 2006

Big Brother's History

By John Prados
May 25, 2006

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What needs to happen before Americans understand that government surveillance is about more than protection against terrorism?

The National Security Agency’s warrantless domestic wiretaps and its logs of Americans’ phone calls are the most controversial, but by no means the only, surveillance initiative underway that has chilling implications for all Americans. American history is littered with examples of similar instances of security programs gone awry. It is three decades now since the Church Committee concluded, “The tendency of intelligence activities expanding beyond their initial scope is a theme which runs through every aspect of our investigative findings.”

In the 20th century, this history of misuse of security programs begins with World War I. A government-sponsored volunteer (read: vigilante) group, the American Protective League, was created to assist the Justice Department and military intelligence, resulting in nearly 2,000 prosecutions for allegedly “disloyal” utterances by Americans.

Immediately after the war, the “Palmer Raids,” named for then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, rounded up 10,000 persons for supposed anarchist or revolutionary views. These became a milestone in the creation of the FBI and the career of its first director (and Palmer’s chief assistant) J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover went on to keep books on all manner of Americans; he used the information collected to exert political pressure at various times.

Domestic intelligence programs were revived in 1936 and steadily increased in intrusiveness, impelled first by World War II, then by the Cold War. These began with the intention of monitoring foreign influence on American politics and ended up investigating “loyalty.” We hardly need mention the internment of over 120,000 Japanese-Americans on hysterical suspicions of contact with the enemy in World War II.

Though the two statutes are far different in detail, both the Internal Security Act of 1950 and today's Patriot Act represent encroachments on constitutionally guaranteed rights.Title II of the Internal Security Act actually permitted the detention of any person suspected of sabotage or espionage during invasion or insurrection and half a dozen holding camps were prepared. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations initiated “loyalty oaths” with boards to review the records of several million government employees—estimates of those fired or forced to resign range from about 2,500 to roughly 7,000. Although it never came to pass, the list of Americans to be rounded up under the Internal Security Act in the event of a national emergency numbered 26,000 persons in 1954.The inquiries carried out under the loyalty program were FBI-controlled. By 1960 it had opened approximately 432,000 files on groups or individual Americans, under guidelines that permitted investigation based on suspicion of “anarchistic or revolutionary beliefs” even if membership in any group had “not been proven” and in the absence of evidence of any current “activity of a subversive nature.”

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John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., and author of Hoodwinked: The Documents that Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War (The New Press).

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