As Congress and the American people grapple with the fallout from Edward Snowden’s stunning revelations – which continue to come in, thanks to Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian – we are hearing a kind of defense coming from the authoritarians in our midst: none of this is new, they argue, so what’s all the fuss about? In a sense, they are right: the "legal" and political outlines of an American police state have been emerging from the fulcrum of war and the turbulence of our domestic politics since World War II. The only difference now is the technology, which has developed far beyond the imagination of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s first director, who widely deployed the earliest wiretapping capabilities of government snoops.
It began, at least in a systematic way, during the presidency of yet another "progressive" hero, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who spied on his political enemies on the right without the least bit of concern with the Fourth Amendment. His aim was to destroy and possibly jail those who opposed his policies at home and abroad. And although wiretapping was widely practiced, low tech often sufficed, as shown in the story of Rose Wilder Lane’s wartime encounter with the authorities.
It was the summer of 1943, and Lane – a fierce opponent of FDR’s New Deal and a vocal "isolationist" – was weeding the front lawn of her home in Danbury, Connecticut. Lane had recently repaired to what was a small farm as an act of resistance against the wartime controls imposed on the nation: she refused to get a ration card and grew all her own food. Utilizing the skills she had learned as an Okie girl, she canned and preserved the results of her labors in her well-stocked cellar, corresponding with other anti-New Dealers throughout the country. A writer who would later ghostwrite the "Little House on the Prairie" books for her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose’s articles in the proto-libertarian media of the time were jeremiads against the culture of dependency and State-worship that had displaced the old America she had loved. She was, in short, a fierce lady, one who did not suffer fools lightly, and when a state trooper pulled up in front of her house, she squinted at him with a look that must have been withering.
"Are you Mrs. C. G. Lang?" he asked.
No, she said. The trooper, less than half her age, looked puzzled: his young brow wrinkled. "Well then, did you send this postcard?" He took out a clipboard and read the contents of a postcard she had sent to Samuel Grafton, a pro-administration left-wing newspaper columnist, denouncing the recently-passed legislation establishing Social Security as infringing on the rights of Americans, as well as having "German origins."
"Why yes," she replied, I certainly did: "I oppose Social Security. I speak against it and I write against – and what is this, the Gestapo?"
"I don’t like your attitude," replied the cop. "What you wrote is subversive."
"You don’t like my attitude? Subversive?! Listen here, young man – !" and for a solid half hour she stood there berating him. "I pay you. I hired you. What business is it of yours whether I or any other American exercise his God-given right to have an opinion?"
She pointed out that, while she was hardly intimidated by this interrogation – a fact that must have been all too plain to him at the time – his actions would have brought back dark memories for a good deal of the people who lived in her neighborhood, many of whom had recently escaped from the totalitarian darkness that was then engulfing Europe.
The state trooper – one almost has to feel sorry for the poor guy at this point – backed off a bit, and, in answer to Rose’s questions, revealed that her "subversive" opinions had come to the attention of the authorities courtesy of the local postmaster, who, upon reading her postcard, had promptly turned it over to the FBI. With typical incompetence, the snoops had misread her signature, and went looking for a "Mrs. C. G. Lang."
Lane wasn’t just a writer: she was a political activist who worked with the National Economic Council, a conservative group with libertarian leanings which had previously employed Frank Chodorov and Albert J. Nock. Grasping the opportunity to make a political point, Lane wrote a pamphlet describing her experience, What Is This, the Gestapo?, and the incident received national publicity. For the Old Right critics of what amounted to FDR’s wartime dictatorship, it underscored the case they had made in the run up to the war and continued to make: that we would fight and win the battle against national socialism abroad and lose that very same battle on the home front.
The FBI, for its part, admitted it was investigating Rose, and insisted it was imperative "after receipt of information of such a nature that it left us no choice but to inquire into the identity of Mrs. C. G. Lang." Rose’s FBI file, released after her death, was over 100 pages.
FDR, that great "progressive" icon, unleashed J. Edgar Hoover against his conservative enemies, routinely tapping the phones of anti-interventionist and conservative leaders, including members of Congress. The press was not immune: the office of publisher Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the anti-New Deal Chicago Tribune, was bugged, as was the phone line of longtime Tribune political reporter Walter Trohan.
Roosevelt’s successors were no better: Harry Truman regularly used intelligence garnered from wiretaps on prominent political figures to grease the wheels of his political machinations: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon did the same, expanding the size and reach of the FBI’s domestic surveillance net. With the establishment of the National Security Agency (NSA), in 1952, the marriage of modern technology and this by now venerable tradition took the Spy State to a whole new level: no more misreading of postcards for these guys.
We weren’t supposed to even know about the NSA’s existence: the joke in Washington was that NSA stood for "No Such Agency," but word eventually leaked out and, as the Vietnam war metastasized into a major conflict, embroiling the nation in a political maelstrom, the first NSA whistleblower stepped forward.
Before Edward Snowden there was Perry Fellwock, a 25-year-old NSA analyst who spilled the beans in an August, 1972 interview with Ramparts magazine. While Ramparts, house organ of the antiwar New Left, was mainly concerned with gleaning the inner workings of US surveillance abroad, mostly against the Soviet Union and China, that interview contains some tidbits that trace the roots of our present domestic predicament back to that time. For example, Fellwock says:
"Of course all trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific telephone calls to or from the U.S. are tapped. Every conversation, personal, commercial, whatever, is automatically intercepted and recorded on tapes. Most of them no one ever listens to, and after being held available for a few weeks, are erased. They’ll run a random sort through all the tapes, listening to a certain number to determine if there is anything in them of interest to our government worth holding on to and transcribing. Also, certain telephone conversations are routinely listened to as soon as possible. These will be the ones that are made by people doing an inordinate amount of calling overseas, or are otherwise tapped for special interest."
Here we have the general outlines of the much more sophisticated and far-reaching system uncovered by Snowden, which intercepts all our communications and stores them for future reference. Then, as now, the justification for domestic surveillance was hung on a "foreign subversion" hook. Then, as now, they routinely vacuumed up signals intelligence – telephony, cables, information gleaned from bugs – from our ostensible allies. One highlight of the Fellwock interview is that it verifies the strong suspicion in many quarters that the Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty was no "mistake":
"Q. You remember about the ‘Liberty,’ the communications ship we sent in along the coast which was torpedoed by Israeli gunboats? The official word at the time was that the whole thing was a mistake. Johnson calls it a “heartbreaking episode” in The Vantage Point. How does this square with your information?
"A. The whole idea of sending the “Liberty” in was that at that point the US simply didn’t know what was going on going on [during the Six Day war]. We sent it in close so that we could find out hard information about what the Israelis’ intentions were. What it found out, among other things, was that Dayan’s intentions were to push on to Damascus and to Cairo. The Israelis shot at the “Liberty,” damaged it pretty badly and killed some of the crew, and told it to stay away. After this it got very tense. It became pretty clear that the White House had gotten caught with its pants down."
I’m pretty sure David Horowitz, who was editor of the magazine at the time, doesn’t care to be reminded of this particular journalistic triumph.
Fellwock’s comments also prefigured what has to be one of the scariest aspects of our present situation – the potential for abuse by "rogue" NSA employees. "There’s a lot of corruption too," he told Ramparts. "Quite a few people in NSA are into illegal activities of one kind or another. It’s taken to be one of the fringe benefits of the job."
In the years since then, I find it hard to believe the moral caliber of the average NSA employee has risen: if anything, given the crappy culture we live in, it’s much lower. In an age when identity theft is a serious and growing problem, do we really want to give government snoops access to our computer passwords, our vital information, and the most private details of our lives?
Blackmail, theft, and even crimes of a sexual nature – all are pregnant possibilities in the world the Surveillance State is creating. A nightmare world in which you can never be sure when some government snoop will be dipping into your emails, or eavesdropping on your calls: where writers can’t even be sure the words they are typing aren’t being read even before they are published. Snowden said it best:
"I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded. And that’s not something I’m willing to support, it’s not something I’m willing to build, and it’s not something I’m willing to live under. So I think anyone who opposes that sort of world has an obligation to act in the way they can."
He’s right: we must act: I gave some indication of how to go about it here, and I want to draw it to the attention of my readers again because the nightmare world Snowden descries isn’t just a dystopian possibility anymore: it is here and now. Thank God Snowden had the courage to act on his convictions: I only pray the rest of us will be inspired by his example.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.