The recent disclosures of NSA surveillance of the Internet call to mind the first-time the federal government monitored private communications. This little-known moment in our nation’s history should raise flags for us today.
In June 1917, two months after American entry into the World War I, Congress gave the U.S. Postal Service unprecedented powers of surveillance. Under the Espionage Act of 1917, postal authorities were authorized to withdraw from the mails “every letter, writing, circular, postal card, picture, print, engraving, photograph, newspaper, pamphlet, book for other publication, matter, or thing” that advocated “treason, insurrection, or forcible resistance to any law of the United States.” Offenders stood not only to lose their mailing privileges but also to be jailed for up to five years.
Things quickly got out of hand. Implementation of the law fell to Postmaster General Alfred S. Burleson, a former congressman from Texas. Burleson exercised his new powers with a heavy hand. The day after Congress passed the Espionage Act, Burleson directed the nation’s 55,000 local postmasters to be on the lookout for signs not only of disloyalty but anything that might “embarrass or hamper the government in conducting the war.”
Burleson assured newspaper editors (who depended on the mail for circulation) that he had no intention of clamping down on free speech. “But there is a limit,” he warned, “and this limit is reached when a newspaper begins to say that this government got into the wrong war, that it is there for a wrong purpose, or anything else that impugns the motives of the government, thereby encouraging insubordination.”
The U.S. Postal Service neither had the time nor the personnel to inspect every piece of mail that passed daily through the system. So they focused instead on newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and other printed matter. In an attempt to comply with Burleson’s directive, postal workers withdrew anything even remotely critical of the war.
Principal targets included socialist publications, some of which depicted the government as a tool of Wall Street and the war as a capitalist plot. But ordinary citizens also came under scrutiny.
The writer of a religious tract entitled “The Protecting Presence” ran afoul of authorities for writing, “Let us see that God’s victory in the war is won by brother-love and not by violence.” A postal inspector ruled: “This looks very much like a bit of camouflaged non-resistant literature and for this reason it should be held nonmailable under the Espionage Act.” A small town newspaper in New Jersey, The Vineland Independent, lost its mailing privileges for editorializing that the government should pay for the war by raising taxes rather than passing the costs on to future generations. A California congressman was prohibited from sending his constituents copies of a speech he made on the floor of the House of Representatives opposing a declaration of war.
From time to time President Woodrow Wilson complained to Burleson about postal overreach. Each time the postmaster general reassured the president that he was simply carrying out his responsibilities “with moderation and caution but with firmness and dispatch.”
The Espionage Act had other far-reaching consequences. Under its provisions, Eugene V. Debs, the perennial Socialist Party candidate for the presidency, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for criticizing the war. Filmmaker Robert Goldstein, a protégé of D.W. Griffith, went to prison for making a movie, “The Spirit of ‘76” about the American Revolution. What got Goldstein into trouble were scenes depicting the British, America’s ally in 1917, in an unfavorable light.
In upholding the constitutionality of the Espionage Act, the Supreme Court ruled that many things said during a time of peace are such a hindrance during a time of war that they cannot be tolerated. If postal surveillance or the imprisonment of people like Eugene Debs and Robert Goldstein had enhanced public safety or helped win the war, one could plausibly argue they had been necessary. In retrospect, there is no evidence they did either.
And it wasn’t just during World War I that the federal government crossed the line. Everyone knows about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and about illegal wiretapping during the Cold War and Vietnam.
So far, nothing comparable to these events has been disclosed about NSA surveillance. But given our own history, that’s no reason to relax our guard or delay having the “conversation” President Obama has been promising us about the balance between national security and personal freedom.