Much of the concern following Edward Snowden’s revelations over the staggering scale of NSA dragnet surveillance has focused on the spy agency’s meteoric growth since 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’.
However an upcoming book by US military and intelligence historian Lon Strauss, titled ‘Uncle Sam is Watching: Surveillance of Civilians in the First World War,’ traces the roots of mass government surveillance all the way back to WW1.
‘It’s fascinating to examine America in the early 20th century and see the foundation that influenced subsequent decisions. And with what we’re seeing now we can certainly say there’s a direct connection with the type of surveillance state that produced the NSA; that foundation was created in the First World War.’
Straus argues that the history of NSA-style spying on US civilians started with the US Espionage Act of 1917. It was aimed primarily at supressing dissent among pacifists and socialists, but provided the broad foundations upon which intelligence practices were defined, and upon which the federal government (including the Whitehouse) could extend its power.
During the Great War pacifists and socialists were deemed un-American, or considered to be German sympathizers,
‘These movements all got rolled up into one, and America got into the war so quickly and had to really just get moving. There was the expansion of the military, society, economy, and these intelligence agencies were a part of that. And there was nobody. Not enough people had experience in this kind of work before.’
What is particularly noteworthy about the methods employed is their scale, which showed the US government applying the same ‘industrial’ principles it used to wage war with guns and tanks, to field of intelligence espionage,
‘Government agencies, such as the Bureau of Investigation, Military Intelligence Division, and Office of Naval Intelligence would put together lists of individuals and groups to keep watch on. They would share these lists with each other and other government agencies, such as the Post Office.
Artillery shell production at Bethlehem Steel Company in Pennsylvania. The US government applied the same industrial principles to the surveillance war as they did to the military war
Post Master General Albert S. Burleson used the Post Office as a gatekeeper for censorship. They read Americans’ mail and Burleson took the liberty of determining whether literature, publications, and more would be considered mailable. Once, he pulled a copy of a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly newspaper, newsletter, etc., he could then legally stop mailing them entirely under the regulations concerning such publications.
In this manner, he stopped publications that he considered either pro-German, too socialist, or too pacifist. The Justice Department took the un-mailable status of such literature as part of, or even the core of, their justification for prosecutions against individuals and entities involved. Regardless, Post Office personnel were reading individual and organizational mail and keeping a file.’
Indeed, the practices used show the kind of alarming disregard for citizen’s privacy and democratic rights that is all too familiar to us today in this post Snowden world. Telephone conversations were tapped, post office staff opened and read personal mail, soldiers broke into offices to look for documents, and spies were planted to work at ‘suspect organizations’,
Roger Nash Baldwin was alleged to be a ‘slacker’ for encouraging draft-age men to avoid national service on a basis of ‘conscience’ unconnected with recognized religion
‘Military Intelligence agents, along with their civil counter-parts in the Bureau of Investigation, broke into offices at night in clandestine operations, such as against the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB). In one instance, they took information that the NCLB had recently lost their press secretary to put an MID agent undercover by applying the next day for the position.
Military personnel, in uniform, acted on a civil warrant to search the business offices and private residences of International Bible Student’s Association in Brooklyn, NY. Military agents tailed and kept unsuspecting citizens under watch as they compiled evidence against them because the military thought them “too” pacifist or socialist for example, and thus might hamper the war effort or negatively influence draft-age men – the Espionage Act of 1917 forbade this.
Since the late 19th Century, it was common practice for private detective agencies and businesses to put men or women undercover among the workers to gauge and undermine their efforts at collective bargaining or outright unionizing. The intelligence agencies of the First World War adopted similar policies. It was common knowledge that a government agents were likely to be in attendance at public or even less intimate private meetings. Speakers at these meetings would often allude to this fact.
Wiretapping was often prevalent, since listening in at switchboards was much easier during this period.’
The syndicalist International Workers of the World (IWW) was popular among workers, and in the 1912 Presidential election socialist Eugene V. Debs received almost a million votes
A lot of information was obviously being collected, so the infrastructure to sift through it had to be expanded too,
‘What was most problematic was cutting through the noise of intelligence gathering to locate real threats. Since there wasn’t much time to prepare for American entrance and the intelligence community had to hit the road running while expanding exponentially, they relied on their instincts and political/social/cultural compasses.
Thus, men like Burleson overstepped and broadly interpreted the wartime legislation like the Espionage Act or Trading with Enemy Act and invaded civilians’ privacy.
Intelligence agents, such as the MID, did the same by breaking into offices without warrants or legal justification beyond their belief that an individual or organization did not meet their definition of patriotic American, etc.’
Once the war finished (in less than two years from a US perspective), records held on these ‘undesirables’ were passed on to the fairly (1908) newly formed Bureau of Investigation (BOI, later renamed the FBI).
‘The surveillance state, however, did not end with the war. Intelligence gatherers continued wartime methods afterwards. They may have been more rudimentary, but they manually collated tons of data and interpreted language to apply “ex ante prevention.” Government personnel continued their practices, sometimes within a legal gray area, throughout the Cold War. American democracy, with its continual dispute over the role of the federal government and its citizens, has always relied on civilians’ eagerness to spy on each other and ferret out those thought less than 100% American.’
J Edgar Hoover, the infamous director of the FBI 1924 – 1972, transformed the Bureau during the Second World War and the subsequent anti-communist paranoia of the Cold War, from a being a purely crime fighting organization to a spying origination that turned the surveillance tools it had originally developed to fight America’s enemies, on the American people themselves.
FBI director John Edgar Hoover
‘There weren’t a lot of borders. No one really created a framework in which these agencies were supposed to work. So over the years, it contributed to McCarthyism. Previously, in the Second World War, they were much more prescient about aspects of what they were doing. In the First World War, they were looking through people’s mail and sneaking into offices. They were looking through these things that we think are sacred now.’
The FBI famously spied on civil rights originations in the 1950s and 60s (most notably on the Rev. Martin Luther King), but Strauss argues this was nothing new, and merely an extension of the ‘Negro Subversion Files’, which dated back to WW1.
‘With the military-industrial complex in full swing during the Cold War, partnerships with private businesses, public universities, and more, agents read mail, tapped phones, went undercover, etc. to sniff out dissent, communism, or groups they perceived to be too supportive of civil liberties and freedoms to the detriment of national security. Once again, the same issues as during the First World War reared their ugly head. The same story would play itself out in the 1980s and would pick-up full-swing in the 21st Century with the War on Terror.’
Strauss elsewhere concludes,
‘One major distinction, though, is that the “War on Terror” has no foreseeable end, whereas the First World War ended when Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles. The surveillance state, however, did not end with the war. Intelligence gatherers continued wartime methods afterwards. They may have been more rudimentary, but they manually collated tons of data and interpreted language to apply “ex ante prevention.” Government personnel continued their practices, sometimes within a legal gray area, throughout the Cold War. American democracy, with its continual dispute over the role of the federal government and its citizens, has always relied on civilians’ eagerness to spy on each other and ferret out those thought less than 100% American. The First World War institutionalized surveillance in the US, and the NSA is the latest moment in that long growth of the surveillance state.’
Our thanks to The Register for previewing many of these quotes from Lon Strauss’ upcoming book ‘Uncle Sam is Watching: Surveillance of Civilians in the First World War.’ Other Strauss quotes are culled from here and here.