Patrick Maney: Secret National Security Agency programs have stirred great controversy, but this type of surveillance is not new. In this photo, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who heads both the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 12, 2013, before the Senate Appropriations Committee. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

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.

In June 1917, two months after American entry into the World War I, Congress gave the U.S. Postal Service unprecedented powers of surveillance.

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.

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.

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.


Tags: History, Law, Security

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  • Futo Buddy

    “President Obama has been promising us about the razor-edge balance proper balance between national security and personal freedom.”

    looks like the editor is really struggling to express that such a thing exists. cognitive dissonance is an interesting phenomenon. those of us who are aware of history know that no amount of liberty should be sacrificed to purchase the temporary illusion of “security”

  • Hank Dawson

    This goes beyond the US borders… anger should be global like this article I read says

  • Futo Buddy

    echoes of gestapo stasi and kgb

  • JB Smith

    I am a victim of “the brain initiative”. It is the great
    deception. Law enforcement are implanting everyone with radio frequency
    communication chips aka nerve stimulators or wireless in-body antennas. In
    Virginia, state and local police give you three options: 1) be put in a
    stabilization ward and be tortured, 2) be put in jail and be tortured, or 3) be
    infected with an infectious disease. They have tried the first two and are
    threatening the third. The chip is protruding from my cancer surgery scars.
    Even though it was implanted without my knowledge and consent by Dr. Lawrence
    Chang of Pariser Dermatology, surgeons refuse to remove it. It uses
    technologies like the audio spotlight by Holosonics. They bombard your mind
    with obscenities, cursing, and all manner of evil things. Wireless tazing with
    lasers that come through the electrical outlets – see network world (hacking
    your computer through elctrical outlets). The Army at Picatinny created a laser
    induced plasma channel and steered lightening at a target. Police use lasers
    and steer electricity at my mind, body, heart, and private parts. State Trooper
    Jared Vance informed everyone they come through the electronics in your home. They
    use radio frequency software, lasers, and millimeter wave transmitters to
    create holograms and tap into your mind seeing through your eyes what your
    brain sees and hearing what you hear. (See The Mind Weapon by DARPA
    scientists). It is a microchip implant initiative to enable law enforcement
    ubiquitous surveillance. See Safeguards in a World of Ambient Intelligence by
    Springer to learn about the project. At lease the European Union is trying to
    inform their public and protect them. After everyone is defamed, defrauded,
    unemployable, crippled and suffering, who takes care of us. Will there be indentured
    servitude? Even the Federal District Court Judge knew I was in excruciating
    pain (according to her own clerk of courts) and she refused to grant a motion
    for cessation of torture. This is the weapon of the anti-Christ and the mark of
    the beast. These law enforcement officers are criminals and do not uphold the
    Constitution. People need to read about these new weapons. (See Mental Illness
    and Terrorism: New weapons mimic mental health disease). See
    and search Brandon Raub. Virginia has one of the highest suicide rates in the
    country! Check out Brian Castner’s book The Long Walk – our vets are being
    tortured into suicide. He says, “this is my new life. It’s
    intolerable.” I never served in the war, but I know how he feels. I am no
    longer free to live my life. I am enduring it.

  • A New Orleans vet

    A recent NYT article about US Postal authorities monitoring the mail of targeted groups lends chilling support to this column’s cautionary tale.