Surveillance, Searches, Wiretapping Without Warrants; Deportations Without Due Process, Have Long U.S. History

October 28, 2012


Searching for honest history enables us to possess a critical frame of reference in which to judge current policies, and in which to re-evaluate the authenticity of our supposed “Constitutional Republic.”

From the origins of our Republic, the Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton feared that “democracy” could easily lapse into chaos, believing that a governing elite was necessary to lead the young nation. They wanted to save the nation from the perils of genuine people politics, i.e., democracy. But James Madison, who later became affiliated with the opposing Democratic-Republicans, proclaimed similar sentiments of elitism during the secret debates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention that landholders ought to have a share in the government…so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority [Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, Taken by the Late Hon Robert Yates, Chief Justice of the State of New York, and One of the Delegates from That State to the Said Convention. 
(Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Library, The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, accessed October 28, 2012)].

The U.S. “Founding Fathers” in fact possessed a vision for an “empire of liberty” [Jefferson], “imperial republicanism” [Madison] and a mercantile nation “predicated upon imperial expansion…that was the engine of the system” [William Appleman Williams, Empire As A Way Of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 59, 51, 20], but not a vision of democracy. George Washington, in his second term as President, feared the emergence of “democratic societies” creating “insurrection” from their widespread disaffection with a federally imposed excise tax. He wondered: “can anything be more absurd, more arrogant, or more pernicious to the peace of society” than “self-created bodies” intending to act as “censors” of the acts of Congress “which have undergone the most deliberate and solemn discussion by the representatives of the people.” [Charles Beard, Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1915, 1943), 259]. Our original power elite was already insulated from the people but could not grasp that reality. They were shrouded by their own arrogance, an intrinsic feature of oligarchic power throughout history.

The Constitution itself, despite the later added Bill of Rights, is primarily a document protecting private property and commercial enterprises at the expense of human freedom and liberty. The 5th and 14th Amendments in the Bill of Rights include language assuring protection of property – 5th: “no person shall be…denied life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”; 14th: “nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

The 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts signed into law by Federalist President John Adams consisted of four laws passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress as the country prepared for war with France. These acts increased the residency requirement for U.S. American citizenship from five to fourteen years, authorized the president to imprison or deport aliens considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” even during peacetime, and allowed for the wartime arrest, detention, and deportation of dissenters. These Acts restricted speech critical of the government and were designed to silence and weaken the Democratic-Republican Party.


World War I

President Woodrow Wilson endorsed the 1917 Espionage and Sedition acts, making it a crime to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the United States’ form of government.” Thousands are arrested. During 1917-1918, as the U.S. entered WWI, President Wilson created the Military Intelligence Division (MID) in the War department, to conduct wholesale clandestine surveillance of U.S. citizens suspected of “disloyalty.”

The Bureau of Investigation (BI) in Wilson’s Justice Department created an anti-radical division as early as 1917 under the direction of the newly hired 22-year-old J. Edgar Hoover. Changed to the General Intelligence Division (GID) in 1919, Attorney General Alexander M. Palmer and his 24-year-old assistant Hoover conducted what are popularly called the “Palmer Raids,” or “Red Raids.” Hoover had developed a database by 1919 of some 200,000 names of suspected of radical activities, associations, or beliefs, concentrating on “foreigners,” that directly led to orders for smashing labor unions offices and headquarters of Communist and Socialist organizations without search warrants. Hundreds of Justice Department agents with cooperation of local police and super-patriotic organizations like the American Protective League (APL) and the American Legion carried out raids starting in summer 1919.

In November, Bureau of Investigation agents arrested nearly 650 people in 12 cities. In December, 249 of these arrestees, including Emma Goldman, were forced on a ship, the Buford, in the middle of the night, headed for the Soviet Union via Finland. In January 1920, another 4,000 to 6,000 were caught in dragnet arrests, most without warrants in 33 cities, largely members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW/Wobblies) or labeled “communists.” All “foreign aliens” were deported. By January 1920, Palmer and Hoover had arrested more than 10,000 U.S. Americans., most without warrants [Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1991), pp. 75-105; Geoffrey R. Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004), pp.220-233; Michael Barson and Steven Heller, Red Scared! The Commie Menace In Propaganda and Popular Culture (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2001), pp. 18-21.]

The FBI monitored National Lawyers Guild (NLG) relationships with progressive movements from the 1930s through the 1970s, part of Hoover’s broad obsession with groups and individuals he deemed seditious. Hoover believed firmly that Moscow was directing Guild activities considered rife with communists [Colin Moynihan, “Trove of F.B.I. Files on Lawyers Guild Shows Scope of Secret Surveillance,” June 25, 2007, the New York Times].

The Bureau of Investigation was named the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935.

World War II

In 1938, Congress formed a special House committee to investigate “subversive activities,” focusing on labor unions, federal employees, and youth organizations. On the eve of World war II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created in 1939 the Interdepartmental Intelligence Conference chaired by Hoover, and in 1941 established the Office of Coordinator of (War) Information (COI) to gather and interpret intelligence, headed by William Donovan. In 1943 this morphed into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). A vast spy network was managed by the OSS as they kept more than 35,000 top-secret personnel files of World War II-era spies, before turning this information to its successor, the CIA.

President Truman

In 1945, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was created, succeeding the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, which had existed since 1938, charged with uncovering and identifying “anti-American” or “pro-communist” activities. President Truman instituted a federal employee loyalty program in 1947 to preclude the employment of “disloyal Americans.” Local governments, public institutions, and private companies, as well as universities and labor unions, quickly fell in line by instituting their own loyalty programs and dismissing employees suspected of having ties to communism.

Before President Truman established the National Security Agency (NSA) in 1952, government cryptologists were ordered to conduct domestic spy hunts under “Operation Shamrock” in 1947. This was a super secret operation forcing private telegraphic companies to turn over the telegraphic correspondence of Americans to the government. Shamrock grew out of a World War II program conducting government censorship of international telegrams. Until the program was shut down in 1975, the three major international carriers, RCA Global, ITT World Communications and Western Union International, delivered copies of messages sent on a daily basis to the NSA.

Spying: 1960s, Viet Nam, Today

The NSA kicked its large spy campaign into high gear in the 1960s, especially under President Johnson. The FBI demanded that the NSA monitor antiwar activists, civil rights leaders, and drug peddlers.

The FBI’s secret, illegal covert CO-INTEL-PRO (Counterintelligence Program), 1956-1971, against US American citizens, targeted the Black Panthers, American Indian and Civil Rights movements and the VVAW, among others. The FBI admitted 2,218 separate COINTELPRO actions, many coupled with a variety of other illegal devices, such as warrantless phone taps (2,305), secret bugs against domestic targets (697), and systematic interception of mail correspondences (57,846).

In 1962, Hoover established the Library Awareness Program in an attempt to turn librarians into informants, asking them to report on the reading habits of people with foreign accents or funny sounding names [Mathew Miller,  “Ma’m, What You Need Is a New, Improved Hoover,” Washington Monthly, January 1989].

In 1967 the CIA initiated “Operation Chaos,” (and later “Meerimac” and “Resistance”) exceeding its statutory authority in response to a presidential request that the agency discover ties between U.S. anti-war groups and “foreign interests.” From 1967-1974 it indexed 300,000 names, kept 13,000 subject files, and intercepted voluminous letters and cables to compile information on domestic activities of U.S. citizens.

However, there is evidence that Operation Chaos began much earlier – in 1959 when President Eisenhower used the CIA to seek exiles who were fleeing Cuba after Castro’s triumphant revolution. The CIA sought contacts with the exile community to recruit them for use against Castro, arguably illegal, although Eisenhower ordered FBI Director Hoover to accept it as a legitimate CIA function. The CIA considered this a normal extension of its authorized infiltration of dissident groups abroad even though the activity was taking place within the U.S. Disdain for Congress permeated the upper echelons of the CIA. Congress could not hinder or regulate something it did not know about and neither the President nor the Director of the CIA told them.

The Department of Defense (DOD), Directorate for Civil Disturbance Planning and Operations, and separately, the Department of Army Intelligence Command for Continental United States, conducted domestic surveillance on thousands of U.S. citizens throughout the 1960s. More than 1,500 army plainclothes intelligence agents worked out of 350 separate offices and record centers to spy on ordinary U.S. residents.  It operated without authority from Congress, the President, or the Secretary of the Army. Data banks were kept on as many as 100,000 individual entries, focusing on the feared Civil Rights movement, and the “New left” anti-Vietnam war movement, including the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The assumption: foreign influence within the civil rights and antiwar movements.

In 1967-1974, Presidents Johnson and Nixon repeated Wilson’s WWI OMI activities through the Army Security Agency (ASA) working with other military intelligence units illegally surveying communications and activities of US citizens expressing opposition to the war. Called “Operation Minaret,” it kept a watch list of suspected Americans, and collected their phone calls and telegrams made in and out of the country. The names were submitted to the NSA by other agencies because the “targets” were suspected of involvement in terrorism, drug trafficking, threats to the president, and civil disturbances.

The Department of Justice Internal Security Division established under President Nixon worked with a vast network of domestic intelligence agencies, including Nixon’s own Huston Plan (the “Plumbers unit”), acquiring information and conducting dirty tricks on “Persons and Organizations Not Affiliated with the Department of Defense.”

An intense debate erupted during the Ford administration in 1975-76 over presidential powers to eavesdrop without warrants to gather foreign intelligence using NSA. George H.W. Bush, Director of the CIA, Donald Rumsfeld, Ford’s Chief of Staff, and Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld’s Deputy, were involved. Bush wanted to ensure “no unnecessary diminution of collection of important foreign intelligence” under a proposal to require judges to approve “terror’ wiretaps. Bush complained that some major communications companies were unwilling to install government wiretaps without a judge’s approval, claiming such refusal “seriously affects the capabilities of the intelligence community.” Ford supported what became the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA).

In 1994, President Clinton expanded the use of warrantless searches to entirely domestic situations with no foreign intelligence value whatsoever. In a radio address promoting a crime-fighting bill, Mr. Clinton discussed a new policy to conduct warrantless searches in “violent public housing projects.” And George Bush II and Barack Obama have only gravely expanded the powers of the federal government to conduct surveillance and arrest, detain, and deport without due process.


Surveillance and repression of U.S. citizens and residents perceived as critical of the government and its policies are as US American as apple pie. That such practices are illegal and unconstitutional have consistently been of no concern to the powers that control the country. Throughout world history, vertical power, whether derived through dictators, monarchs, or democratic elections, operates through tyranny. So-called democracies are equally terrified of popular power, requiring instead popular obedience, and censorship of genuine history that wipes out the importance of memory. [See Etienne De La Boetie, The Politics of Obedience: A Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (circa 1550, Buffalo, NY: Black Rose Books, 1997)].

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