Foreign Policy, Ep. 1: Government Surveillance: We’re Being Watched

Abigail Hall Blanco,

Release Date
July 19, 2016


Civil Liberties

Is government surveillance of private citizens ever justified? Abby Hall Blanco from the University of Tampa explains the history of spying by the American government on its own and foreign citizens. How can lessons from the past inform our policies today?

Perfecting Tyranny: Foreign Intervention as Experimentation in State Control (Journal article): Chris Coyne and Abby Hall Blanco explain the boomerang effect. 
Guard Your Liberty (Article): Liberty is something to be actively defended. 
What Would It Take For You to Fight For Your Liberty? (Learn Liberty Video): Prof. James Otteson asks the question. 
How the Paris Terror Attack Could Curb Human Rights in 90 Seconds (Learn Liberty Video): Chris Coyne on the civil liberties implications of political responses to terrorist attacks. 

>> Did you know that in the 1960s, the FBI was using its most advanced technologies to spy on a dangerous American dissident named Martin Luther King? Under the surveillance program COINTELPRO, the NSA and FBI spied extensively on King. Why? Because he spoke out often against the ongoing Vietnam War and was subversive in his fight for racial equality.

The FBI used information they had on King to try to blackmail him and even suggested that he kill himself. Today, the debate about surveillance is raging again. With the Snowden leaks about the NSA in 2013 and the even more recent public fight over encryption, between Apple and the FBI.

But mass government surveillance of its own citizens is nothing new. In the US, it goes back over 100 years. And perhaps it shouldn’t be shocking, government surveillance of citizens is actually an entirely predictable consequence of having an interventionist foreign policy. Because the programs and techniques used to spy on foreign population tend to find their way back home.

The first major government spying program occurred under the US Philippine War, under the father of US military intelligence Captain Ralph Van Deman. He oversaw efforts collecting communications to monitor and suppress Filipinos who posed a threat to the war effort. Rebels, critics, and other subversives. They collected information like physical appearance, finances, friends, family and political beliefs.

After the war, Van Deman pushed his superiors to create a permanent military intelligence effort. Eventually, he succeeded and was placed in charge of the newly created Military Intelligence Division or MID. But after World War I, it was revealed that the MID hadn’t limited surveillance to foreign targets. It had collected millions of pages of communications from Americans of German descent.

This resulted in a political backlash, with many promises to limit surveillance on American citizens in the future. Surveillance programs were expanded further during World War II, and the post war period saw the creation of the National Security Agency. Surveillance is becoming a permanent government mission rather than a temporary war mission, and the NSA began to be staffed by civilian employees instead of the military.

This meant there was the opportunity to find new targets. By the time of the Vietnam War, the NSA was regularly collecting information on private citizens, including activist, critics of the war and others they considered subversive. Which could describe nearly anyone who was critical of the government. They would share the information with other branches of government, like the FBI, the CIA, and the military.

The abuses of COINTELPRO, the program used against Martin Luther King, were revealed in 1974, leading again to public outrage. A Senate investigation called The Church Committee Created a special court to constrain future surveillance programs. In theory, it would ensure all surveillance adhered to constitutional limits. These constraints were put to the test after the 911 attacks, when government surveillance programs expanded dramatically.

Since then multiple NSA employees have come forward, saying that the agency regularly violates constitutional rights and has few legal constraints. But these whistleblowers received little public attention in part, because their word against the government. And then came Edward Snowden, he presented evidence showing that the NSA was storing all kinds of information thought to be private, texts, phone calls, phone locations, emails, Facebook messages, every conceivable bit of data.

By leaking millions of documents to the press, his claims were undeniable. Now there was proof of how massive and invasive the NSA’s programs had become. He also showed that the special court created by the church committee, does nothing to constrain abuse. The court seemingly acts as a rubber stamp, okaying everything the NSA wants to do.

Examining the history of US surveillance programs shows us why we should be skeptical when the government tells us it must intrude our constitutional privacy because of foreign threats. As we’ve seen, when government surveillance goes unchecked, US citizens become the target.