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The US Surveillance State Dates Back to the 19th Century

How today's national security policies harken back to Vietnam, World War I, and the 1898 occupation of the Philippines

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 3:47 PM EDT
American troops guarding the bridge over the River Pasig, 1898

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

The American surveillance state is now an omnipresent reality, but its deep history is little known and its future little grasped. Edward Snowden's leaked documents reveal that, in a post-9/11 state of war, the National Security Agency (NSA) was able to create a surveillance system that could secretly monitor the private communications of almost every American in the name of fighting foreign terrorists. The technology used is state of the art; the impulse, it turns out, is nothing new. For well over a century, what might be called "surveillance blowback" from America's wars has ensured the creation of an ever more massive and omnipresent internal security and surveillance apparatus.  Its future (though not ours) looks bright indeed.

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.

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.

Today, as Washington withdraws troops from the Greater Middle East, a sophisticated intelligence apparatus built for the pacification of Afghanistan and Iraq has come home to help create a twenty-first century surveillance state of unprecedented scope. But the past pattern that once checked the rise of a US surveillance state seems to be breaking down. Despite talk about ending the war on terror one day, President Obama has left the historic pattern of partisan reforms far behind. In what has become a permanent state of "wartime" at home, the Obama administration is building upon the surveillance systems created in the Bush years to maintain US global dominion in peace or war through a strategic, ever-widening edge in information control. The White House shows no sign—nor does Congress—of cutting back on construction of a powerful, global Panopticon that can surveil domestic dissidents, track terrorists, manipulate allied nations, monitor rival powers, counter hostile cyber strikes, launch preemptive cyberattacks, and protect domestic communications.

Writing for TomDispatch four years ago during Obama's first months in office, I suggested that the War on Terror has "proven remarkably effective in building a technological template that could be just a few tweaks away from creating a domestic surveillance state—with omnipresent cameras, deep data-mining, nano-second biometric identification, and drone aircraft patrolling ‘the homeland.'"

That prediction has become our present reality—and with stunning speed. Americans now live under the Argus-eyed gaze of a digital surveillance state, while increasing numbers of surveillance drones fill American skies. In addition, the NSA's net now reaches far beyond our borders, sweeping up the personal messages of many millions of people worldwide and penetrating the confidential official communications of at least 30 allied nations. The past has indeed proven prologue. The future is now.

The Coming of the Information Revolution
The origins of this emerging global surveillance state date back over a century to "America's first information revolution" for the management of textual, statistical, and analytical data—a set of innovations whose synergy created the technological capacity for mass surveillance.

Here's a little litany of "progress" to ponder while on the road to today's every-email-all-the-time version of surveillance.

Within just a few years, the union of Thomas A. Edison's quadruplex telegraph with Philo Remington's commercial typewriter, both inventions of 1874, allowed for the accurate transmission of textual data at the unequalled speed of 40 words per minute across America and around the world.

In the mid-1870s as well, librarian Melvil Dewey developed the "Dewey decimal system" to catalog the Amherst College Library, thereby inventing the "smart number" for the reliable encoding and rapid retrieval of limitless information.

The year after engineer Herman Hollerith patented the punch card (1889), the US Census Bureau adopted his Electrical Tabulating machine to count 62,622,250 Americans within weeks—a triumph that later led to the founding of International Business Machines, better known by its acronym IBM.

By 1900, all American cities were wired via the Gamewell Corporation's innovative telegraphic communications, with over 900 municipal police and fire systems sending 41 million messages in a single year.

A Colonial Laboratory for the Surveillance State
On the eve of empire in 1898, however, the US government was still what scholar Stephen Skowronek has termed a "patchwork" state with a near-zero capacity for domestic security. That, of course, left ample room for the surveillance version of modernization, and it came with surprising speed after Washington conquered and colonized the Philippines.

Facing a decade of determined Filipino resistance, the US Army applied all those American information innovations—rapid telegraphy, photographic files, alpha-numeric coding, and Gamewell police communications—to the creation of a formidable, three-tier colonial security apparatus including the Manila Police, the Philippines Constabulary, and above all the Army's Division of Military Information.

In early 1901, Captain Ralph Van Deman, later dubbed "the father of US Military Intelligence," assumed command of this still embryonic division, the Army's first field intelligence unit in its 100-year history. With a voracious appetite for raw data, Van Deman's division compiled phenomenally detailed information on thousands of Filipino leaders, including their physical appearance, personal finances, landed property, political loyalties, and kinship networks.

Starting in 1901, the first US 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 US files, assuring his unchecked ascent to become the first president of the Philippines in 1935.

American Blueprint
During the US 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.

After the US entered World War I in 1917 without an intelligence service of any sort, Colonel Van Deman brought his Philippine experience to bear, creating the US 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."

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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.

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