The Dawn of the Surveillance State

America has been spying on its citizens for a hundred years

We think of mass surveillance as a product of modern technology—applying computing power to scoop up communications and metadata in bulk. But large-scale spying on Americans got its real start in 1917, when the United States entered World War I. The government wanted to build up an apparatus to crush all criticism.

In his 1917 Flag Day speech, President Wilson claimed that Germany had “filled our unsuspecting communities with vicious spies and conspirators and sought to corrupt the opinion of our people in their own behalf.” He warned, “Woe be to the man or group of men that seeks to stand in our way in this day of high resolution.” The next day, Congress gave teeth to his warning with the Espionage Act, which criminalized opposition to the war. In 1918, the Sedition Act made prohibitions on dissent even broader.

The apparatus for searching out people with supposedly disloyal tendencies was already in place. The Council of National Defense, created in 1916, had begun urging the states to create their own Councils of Defense. Some of them paid close attention to everything people were saying and promoted persecution of anything sounding disloyal or foreign. In Iowa, elderly women were jailed for speaking German over the telephone, and a pastor was imprisoned for giving part of a funeral service in Swedish. 

In Oklahoma, Governor Robert L. Williams formed an extralegal state Council of Defense, which in turn created an Oklahoma Loyalty Bureau, employing secret service agents to find sedition in communities. The Tulsa County Council of Defense formed a secret organization to look for dissidents. 

The Bureau of Investigation (later called the FBI) got into the act, creating the American Protective League (APL)—a private, quasi-official espionage organization. The APL boasted that it was “organized with approval and operating under the direction of the United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Investigation.” Because it was nominally private, the government didn’t have to take responsibility for its actions. Its 1,200 branches put local public schools under surveillance, checked on people who didn’t buy war bonds, and investigated Lutheran clergymen who didn’t express public support for the war. APL members detained over 40,000 people, opened mail, and raided factories, union halls, and private homes.  

The federal government did its own share of outrageous searches and seizures. A 1918 pamphlet, “War-time Prosecutions and Mob Violence,” by the National Civil Liberties Bureau, cites numerous raids, with vast amounts of printed materials confiscated, from September 1917 onward. The International Workers of the World (IWW) and the International Bible Students’ Association—a branch of what’s now known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses—were targeted repeatedly.

The Feds also took control of all radio stations when the United States joined the war. Amateur radio was shut down, along with many commercial stations. In 1918 the federal government nationalized telephone and telegraph service, an act that Postmaster General Burleson declared necessary “to prevent communication by spies and other public enemies.” 

Most of the surveillance apparatus was dismantled after the war was over, and communications returned to private hands. However, the Sedition Act, which made it all possible, still remains on the books, though in a more limited form. In 1971, it was used to indict Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon Papers, which showed that the government had been systematically misleading the public about the Vietnam War. In 2013, it was the basis for bringing charges against Edward Snowden.

And even if most of the organizations created during this wave of hysteria are now defunct, as historian Lon Strauss has written, we can “see the foundation that influenced subsequent decisions…. There’s a direct connection with the type of surveillance state that produced the NSA; that foundation was created in the First World War.” 

Mass surveillance might be grabbing headlines, but unfortunately, it’s nothing new.  

Further Reading

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