The Origins of the US Police State
While the majority of Americans were stunned and outraged at Edward Snowden’s revelations that the government was secretly monitoring their phone calls and emails, the US government has been systematically spying on law abiding citizens for nearly 100 years. In July 2013, University of Wisconsin professor Alfred McCoy, one of America’s foremost experts on CIA narcotics trafficking, laid out an elegant history of government domestic spying in Tomgram: Obama’s Expanding Surveillance Universe. It should be required reading for every high school graduate. Below are some highlights:
1898 -1901 US Occupation of the Philippines
The US Army first developed the capacity to spy and keep records on civilians when they occupied the Philippines (following the Spanish American War) in 1898. n when they occupied the Philippines following the Spanish American War. The local population already had a large, well-organized resistance movement which had been battling Spain for independence. In 1901, as director of the army’s first field intelligence unit, Captain Ralph Van Deman, compiled detailed personal and financial records on thousands of Filipino leaders.
1917 – 1921 World War I and the Palmer Raids
After the US entered World War I in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson engaged Van Deman to create the US Army’s Military Intelligence Division to spy on US civilians. Van Deman, in turn, enlisted a patriotic vigilante group called the American Protective League to assist in collecting a million pages of surveillance reports on Americans of German ancestry (like my grandfather and great grandfather, who was forced to flee to South America).
After the war ended in 1918 they joined with the Bureau of Investigation (renamed the FBI in 1935) to engage in strike breaking in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest and round up and deport European labor activists.
In 1921, incoming president Warren Harding condemned Wilson’s oppressive secret police apparatus and forced the Army and FBI to cut their ties with vigilante groups. Although Van Deman was forced into retirement, he and his wife continued to compile files on 250,000 so-called subversives.
1940 – 1945 World War II
In 1940, Hoover made use of Van Deman’s files and a network of 300,000 informants to carry out illegal FBI wiretaps, break-ins, and mail intercepts against political dissidents – based on allegations, which were never substantiated, that they posed a threat against wartime defense plants were never substantiated.
1960-74 Vietnam War and COINTELPRO
From 1960-74, Hoover expanded this operation, which he renamed COINTELPRO. As well as spying on activists, this operation also subjected them to extensive personal harassment. According to the senateChurch Committee investigating COINTELPRO, Hoover’s vicious tactics included “anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries that might results in deaths.” As most activists over fifty can tell you, COINTELPRO never ended. I write about my personal encounter with the 1980s version of COINTELPRO in my 2010 memoir The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee.
In 1974, New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh revealed that the CIA, which is forbidden under federal law to operate on US territory, was also engaged in illegal surveillance of antiwar activists under a program known as Operation Chaos. Following his election in 1978, President Jimmy Carter pushed for enactment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). This made government wiretaps illegal unless they were approved by a special FISA court.
2003 – 2008 US Occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq (under Bush)
By the time the US attacked Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003-2003, the intelligence security state had a vast array of new spying technologies (including electronic surveillance, biometric identification, and spy drones) at their disposal. In an attempt to bring the Iraqi resistance under control, General McChrystal ordered the collection of 3 million Iraqi fingerprints and iris scans.
Meanwhile Bush attempted to resurrect Hoover’s old vigilante networks via Operation Tips, which was blocked by major opposition from Congress, civil libertarians, and the media. A parallel initiative called Total Information Awareness, which would have compiled electronic files on millions of Americans, was also banned by Congress.
Despite these setbacks, Bush’s defiance of FISA by ordering the NSA to commence collecting email and phone records of American civilians (exposed by the New York Times in 2005) was retroactively ratified by Congress in 2007.
2009 – present US Occupation of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, and Somalia
Obama substantially expanded NSA spying by collaborating with British intelligence to tap into trans-Atlantic cables carrying phone and email traffic and authorizing NSA spying on residents in NATO ally countries Germany, France, and Italy.
Between 2006-10 the US launched the planet’s first cyberwar. In 2010 Obama ordered cyberattacks (Stuxnet) against Iran’s nuclear facility.
Obama’s Vision for Future Surveillance
According to McCoy, since 2012 Obama has been cutting conventional armaments and investing billions in global information control and space warfare technology. New programs include a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency with 6,000 employees coordinating surveillance data from predator drones, Reapers, U-2 spy planes, Global Hawks, X-37B space drones, Google Earth, Space Surveillance Telescopes, and orbiting satellite. Alongside their surveillance capabilities, new generation spy satellites will have the capability of enveloping the Earth in an electronic grid capable of pulverizing suspected terrorists or entire armies.
Hear Jeff Blankfort interview McCoy about his Tomdispatch article at Radio 4