The Origins of National Surveillance

by Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall

Excerpted from "Perfecting Tyranny: Foreign Intervention as Experimentation in State Control." 

Today national surveillance in the United States is typically associated with the National Security Agency (NSA), which was founded in 1952. However, in order to understand the origins of the modern surveillance state, one has to look back much further, to the late nineteenth century. Alfred McCoy (2009) traces the origins of the surveillance state to the U.S. occupation of the Philippines in 1898. He details how the U.S. government combined state-of-the-art technology—telegraphy, alphanumeric coding, and photographic files—to establish a multitiered organizational structure of surveillance and social control consisting of the Manila Police, the Philippines Constabulary, and the U.S. Army’s Military Information Division (MID). The goal was a centralized effort to suppress any dissent by local political players and Filipino citizens.

There is perhaps no better illustration of the dynamics of the boomerang effect than Captain Ralph Van Deman, who would earn the informal honor of being “the father of U.S. military intelligence” as well as formal enshrinement in the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1989. Van Deman began his career in the U.S. Army in 1891. During the Spanish-American War, he played a crucial role in gathering information on the Spanish military. Following the end of that conflict, he was assigned to the Philippines in 1898, where he was promoted to captain and assigned to the Bureau of Insurgent Records in Manila. Under Van Deman’s guidance, the bureau became the Philippine MID and collected massive amounts of data on key Filipino citizens, including information on physical appearance, personal finances, property holdings, networks of families and friends, and political affiliations and associations (McCoy 2009, 76–82). The purpose of this data collection was as an input to U.S. government control over the Filipino population by identifying political trends and individuals that posed potential threats to U.S. goals in the country.

In 1902, Van Deman returned to the United States and held a number of positions, including one in the U.S. Army’s War College Division. There, to his disappointment, he found little interest in the unique skills and experiences in social control that he had developed in the Philippines (U.S. Army n.d., 3), so he set out to change the status quo by writing a history of the rise and fall of U.S. intelligence from 1895 to 1903 with an emphasis on its importance for the U.S. Army. His goal was to provide a convincing case to U.S. military leaders for a dedicated government organization focusing on intelligence. When his history failed to receive the attention Van Deman desired, he did not stop but rather pursued a more direct approach. According to his unpublished memoir, Van Deman noted that at this time “[I] felt responsible that a suitable organization for intelligence work be created and put to work at the earliest possible moment. . . . [I] decided to employ other means to accomplish the objective if possible” (qtd. in U.S. Army n.d., 4). These alternative means involved working to meet directly with high-ranking officers, including the secretary of war, to change the administrative dynamics of existing U.S. intelligence operations.

He was ultimately successful, and in May 1917 the MID was formed with Van Deman placed in charge. Van Deman organized the MID into twelve divisions: administration (MI-1), information (MI-2), counterespionage (MI-3), foreign influence (MI-4), military attache´s (MI-5), translation (MI-6), maps and photographs (MI-7), codes and ciphers (MI-8), combat intelligence instruction (MI-9), news (censorship) (MI-10), travel (passport and port control) (MI-11), and fraud (MI-12). The MID’s divisions and operations reflected Van Deman’s experiences with surveillance and social control in the Philippines, as illustrated by the following two examples.

The cipher and code division (MI-8), also known as the “American Black Chamber,” was run by Herbert Yardley, a State Department employee who had previously worked as a cryptologic officer with the American Expeditionary Forces in France during World War I.[3] The division acted covertly as a commercial business located in New York City with the mission of breaking the codes and monitoring the communications of foreign governments. Among many other activities, MI-8 entered into a secret agreement with Western Union, the largest U.S. telegram company at the time, to allow members of the division to monitor and review communications passed over American cables (see Bamford 1983, 28, and 2008, 163–64). Other telegraph companies, such as Postal Telegraph and the All-American Cable Company, which oversaw communications between North America and South America, also reached similar agreements granting MI-8 access to private communications (Bamford 1983, 29, and 2008, 164).[4] These covert, extralegal methods reflected the same type of techniques the United States had employed in the Philippines more than a decade earlier.

The Philippines experience was further evident in the multitiered structure Van Deman employed to engage in surveillance activities in the United States. In the Philippines, the MID had relied on the constabulary and police forces to carry out its social control activities. A decade later, the MID partnered with the American Protective League (APL), an organization of private U.S. citizens who worked to identify antiwar advocates, radicals, and German sympathizers within the United States. To provide some context to the scope of this operation, the MID–APL partnership yielded more than a million pages of surveillance on German Americans and conducted more than three million “investigations” for the government in slightly more than a year (McCoy 2009, 301). In pursuing these alliances, Van Deman and the MID were able to establish a nationwide surveillance network, which could then be used as an input into state-produced social control to address “the manifold domestic problems arising from . . . our mixed population” (MID qtd. in McCoy 2009, 300).

The evolution and growth of the domestic surveillance state did not occur without criticism and backlash. For example, the MID–APL partnership was made public in 1919, resulting in calls by then Secretary of War Newton Baker to end the use of private citizens as spies (see Hagedorn 2007, 58–59). Following President Woodrow Wilson’s departure from office in 1921, there was a Republican backlash against what was deemed to be an overly intrusive surveillance apparatus. In 1929, Secretary of State Henry Stimson closed MI-8, noting that “[g]entleman do not read each other’s mail” (qtd. in Stimson and Bundy 1971, 83). Despite this retrenchment, by this point the foundations of a large-scale, centralized, national surveillance state were firmly established in the country, as would become evident only a few decades later.

The Signal Intelligence Service (SIS), the code-breaking division of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps, was established in 1930 (U.S. Army Intelligence Center 2013).[5] The SIS was reorganized as the Signal Security Agency (SSA) in 1943 and focused on intercepting codes and communications from Germany and Japan. After the war, the SSA was separated from the Signal Corps and reorganized as the Army Security Agency (ASA), which further centralized the intelligence operations of the U.S. Army. Although short-lived, this reorganization was important because it blurred the line between civilian and military activities. Although the ASA fell under the authority of the U.S. Army’s director of military intelligence, it was staffed by civilians. This meant that the ASA was “within, but not part of, the overall military establishment” (the ASA’s official historian qtd. in U.S. Army Intelligence Center 2013) so that military-oriented operations became part of the tasks assigned to civilian employees.

Yet another reorganization took place in May 1949 when the secretary of defense established a new defense agency, the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA), with the goal of achieving a “degree of unification of the [intelligence] services as well as ‘efficiency and economy’ in the management of the cryptologic structure” (Burns 1990, 59). This attempted centralization effort failed to achieve the desired ends, leading President Truman to appoint a review panel. The subsequent report, the Brownell Report, detailed the AFSA’s operations and failures, resulting in its being rebranded the NSA (Burns 1990, 97–111).

The NSA, which continues its operations to this day, played a central role in U.S. surveillance efforts both domestically and internationally during the Vietnam War. In conjunction with the FBI, the NSA provided intelligence used for social control over domestic political groups and affiliated individuals. From the late 1950s to the 1970s, the FBI executed its Counter Intelligence Program to monitor, infiltrate, and discredit individuals deemed to be “subversive” (Jeffrey-Jones 2008, 188–89). At this same time, the NSA oversaw Project MINARET, which monitored the private communications of American citizens, including political and civil rights leaders who criticized the U.S. war efforts in Vietnam. The content of these communications was then passed from the NSA to other government agencies, including the FBI, CIA, Secret Service, and Department of Defense.

These operations involved no warrants or oversight. Following Seymour Hersh’s 1974 article in the New York Times revealing the government’s surveillance operations against U.S. citizens, the Senate launched the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, also known as the “Church Committee.” Over the course of 1975 and 1976, the Church Committee revealed the extent, reach, and abuses of intelligence operations and power by members of the U.S. government. The committee concluded, among other things, that “[m]any of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity” (U.S. Senate 1976, 3). The committee also captured the underlying mentality of these programs as an input to state-produced social control when it noted that “[t]he unexpressed major premise of the programs was that a law enforcement agency has the duty to do whatever is necessary to combat perceived threats to the existing social and political order” (1976, 3). Similarly, declassified documents regarding Project MINARET indicate that those involved were aware that the program was “disreputable if not outright illegal” (Johnson 1998, 85). In response to the Church Committee report, a number of reforms were implemented. The centerpiece of these reforms was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which was intended to place constraints on the U.S. government’s surveillance activities.[6]

The effectiveness of these constraints was tested following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. In the post-9/11 period, the NSA and other government agencies again significantly increased their collection of domestic and international electronic data. A series of revelations by whistleblowers, including Thomas Drake, William Binney, and Edward Snowden, called into question the scale, scope, and effectiveness of the U.S. government’s domestic surveillance activities. Although the specifics of this most recent episode of U.S. government surveillance are still unfolding, the present use of domestic surveillance in the United States is clear evidence of the boomerang effect. The centralized apparatus of surveillance and social control first developed by the U.S. government in the Philippines in the late nineteenth century boomeranged back to the United States, where it is flourishing more than a century later. This mass gathering of intelligence threatens the privacy and liberties of U.S. citizens as the government now maintains unprecedented access to their information.