Electronic Surveillance For Countering Terrorism And Stifling Dissent
It would be handy to burn a bright line between countering foreign espionage and stifling domestic dissent. That line turns out to be difficult to draw and maintain when governments under stress confuse critics with enemies. Sharyl Attkisson’s claim that her laptop was compromised and surveilled by a U.S. federal government agency provides another chapter in this long running American story.
Attkisson was cheered by mainstream media for her exposés targeting the Bush Administration. But when her reports looked into Obama Administration’s mishaps like Fast and Furious and Benghazi, her stories ran into opposition and were apparently blocked or spiked by CBS. Attkisson tells her side of the story in her new book Stonewalled.
Electronic surveillance technologies developed to penetrate foreign spy and terrorist networks can also provide surveillance of government critics. They are not supposed to, of course. Federal intelligence agencies and administration officials likely wanted to know more about Attkisson’s sources for her Benghazi stories. Ars Technica, an Administration-friendly site, offers an Attkisson-skeptical story here (updated with “comments, corrections and clarifications” by Attkisson).
Update 11/21/2014 from FOI emails just released:
In an email dated October 4, 2011, Attorney General Holder’s top press aide, Tracy Schmaler, called Attkisson “out of control.” Schmaler told White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz that he intended to call CBS news anchor Bob Schieffer to get the network to stop Attkisson.
Schultz replied, “Good. Her piece was really bad for the AG.”
This is not the first time federal government surveillance justified in the name of national defense has drifted instead to protecting politicians in power from opponents and enemies real or imagined.
In the early years of the Republic, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed and defended as essential to protect against French agents and provocateurs. Yet the Acts mainly served to allow Federalist officials to through political opponents (the Democrat-Republicans or Jeffersonians) into jail and suppress their gatherings, speeches and newspapers. (The notes at right above from this Princeton.edu page.)
The Federalist-controlled Congress passed these laws which made it a crime to “write, print, utter or publish” anything critical of the government. President John Adams claimed that the laws were needed as a war measure, although they were considered by many to be an unconstitutional violation of First Amendment protections of free speech and press. Adams wished to avoid war, and he argued that it was necessary to quell support for the French during the French Revolution. However, the laws were politically motivated, as evidenced by the fact that the only people charged or imprisoned were Republicans (Adams’s rival political party). The first person charged under these laws was Matthew Lyon. [Source]
From Suppressing Speech and the Press to National Surveillance Policies
Chris Coyne and Abigall Hall, in their article Perfecting Tyranny, note that overseas interventions have served as testing grounds for extra-Constitutional policies that have boomeranged to later be applied against U.S. citizens.
Today national surveillance in the United States is typically associated with the National Security Agency (NSA), which was founded in 1952. However, in order to understand the origins of the modern surveillance state, one has to look back much further, to the late nineteenth century. Alfred McCoy (2009) traces the origins of the surveillance state to the U.S. occupation of the Philippines in 1898. He details how the U.S. government combined state-of-the-art technology—telegraphy, alphanumeric coding, and photographic files—to establish a multitiered organizational structure of surveillance and social control consisting of the Manila Police, the Philippines Constabulary, and the U.S. Army’s Military Information Division (MID). The goal was a centralized effort to suppress any dissent by local political players and Filipino citizens.
There is perhaps no better illustration of the dynamics of the boomerang effect than Captain Ralph Van Deman, who would earn the informal honor of being “the father of U.S. military intelligence”… Van Deman began his career in the U.S. Army in 1891. During the Spanish-American War, he played a crucial role in gathering information on the Spanish military. Following the end of that conflict, he was assigned to the Philippines in 1898, where he was promoted to captain and assigned to the Bureau of Insurgent Records in Manila. Under Van Deman’s guidance, the bureau became the Philippine MID and collected massive amounts of data on key Filipino citizens, including information on physical appearance, personal finances, property holdings, networks of families and friends, and political affiliations and associations. (From “Origins of National Surveillance” section in article).
Coyne and Hall explain that upon returning the the United States, Van Deman worked to develop national surveillance at home similar to the system he developed in the Philippines in order to monitor possible subversion and espionage. Van Deman’s surveillance system expanded during World War I and was also used for early electronic surveillance:
Among many other activities, MI-8 entered into a secret agreement with Western Union, the largest U.S. telegram company at the time, to allow members of the division to monitor and review communications passed over American cables (see Bamford 1983, 28, and 2008, 163–64). Other telegraph companies, such as Postal Telegraph and the All-American Cable Company, which oversaw communications between North America and South America, also reached similar agreements granting MI-8 access to private communications (Bamford 1983, 29, and 2008, 164). These covert, extralegal methods reflected the same type of techniques the United States had employed in the Philippines more than a decade earlier. [Footnote information in source article.]
An earlier post discusses the development of national surveillance policies to suppress dissent during World War I (Presentation Notes: The Systematic Federal Surveillance of Ordinary Americans), drawing from a September, 2014 article in The Freeman: “The Dawn of the Surveillance State.“
So… not happy stories, but students should begin to see a pattern: the link between federal surveillance policies and foreign wars and military actions.
Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. – Political Observations” (1795-04-20)