Government Surveillance: Then and Now

Does government surveillance really make us safer?


| July 2013


Before Edward Snowden leaked top-secret documents to prominent newspapers, most Americans did not realize the extent to which our government is actively acquiring their personal information. In Spying on Democracy (City Lights, 2013), author Heidi Boghosian documents the disturbing increase in government surveillance of ordinary citizens and the danger it poses to our privacy, our civil liberties, and to the future of democracy itself. This excerpt is taken from the introduction. 

Government Surveillance: From Outrage to Complacency

Spying on Americans is not new. For almost all of the twentieth century, hysteria on the part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other government intelligence agencies fueled suspicion of domestic dissidents and ordinary citizens. Cold War fears under J. Edgar Hoover spawned counterintelligence programs to disrupt domestic peace groups and to discredit and neutralize public figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and leaders of political movements such as the Puerto Rican Independence Party.

With revelations about covert spying in the 1970s, the public was galvanized in outrage and demanded investigations. In response, the FBI ended its covert counterintelligence programs. An era of regulation of political surveillance was launched, with Congress making permanent the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. In 1976, Attorney General Edward H. Levi established guidelines limiting federal investigative power into the First Amendment activities of Americans.

Half a century later, reports of nationwide surveillance and First Amendment infringements elicit scant outcry, and hard-fought legal protections have been all but eliminated amid fears of terrorism. Beginning in 1981, Ronald Reagan reauthorized many of the domestic intelligence techniques that had been restricted just a decade earlier. After the 1995 attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Bill Clinton’s Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 authorized the targeting of individuals and groups for surveillance, not on the basis of acts they had allegedly committed, but on their “association” with other groups or individuals. Days after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, nearly one million residents sheltered in place as authorities locked down Boston during a high-profile hunt for one 19-year-old suspect. After arresting him and announcing that a public safety danger no longer existed, the Department of Justice nevertheless invoked a rarely used public safety exception to the Miranda obligation to inform suspects of their rights.

The opportunity to abolish any remaining impediments to domestic spying was laid at the feet of the George W. Bush administration after 9/11. FBI agents can now visit public places, attend public events, and install surveillance devices to gather information on individuals and organizations without any indication of criminal activity. The Department of Homeland Security was created, providing a massive injection of funding to state and local police departments to identify terrorist threats, and bolstering an Internet surveillance apparatus. Federal and state agents access private databases and can search and monitor chat rooms, bulletin boards, and websites.

Government officials insist that mass surveillance makes us safer. In the absence of substantive national debate, most of the population—96 percent of which approves of public surveillance cameras, according to a 2009 Harris Poll survey—seems convinced of that assertion. The events following the Boston Marathon attack revealed to the world the extent to which individuals’ movements are monitored and recorded from multiple angles. Lord & Taylor, the country’s oldest high-end retail store, was among the many retailers that provided police investigators with tapes of individuals walking on surrounding sidewalks. When surveillance tapes help lead to the apprehension of criminal suspects in terrorism cases, as happened in Boston, lawmakers are quick to urge installation of even more monitoring devices. Exploiting public fears of terrorism, New York Republican representative Peter King praised surveillance cameras as a way to keep Americans safe from “terrorists who are constantly trying to kill us.”






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