Since last week’s revelations about the NSA, skeptics have questioned whether expansive intelligence powers might really lead to civil liberties abuses. From a historical perspective, there’s no need to ask: Such abuses have occurred many, many times.
Over the past century, American intelligence agencies have performed some amazing feats, outing Soviet infiltrators, hunting down terrorists, and keeping the homeland reasonably safe from its enemies. They have also used their powers to spy on millions of people engaged in legitimate political activity, and to go after critics in Congress, the media, and the public at large. Given this track record, it’s worth asking not whether such abuses might again occur, but whether we have sufficient reason to believe that they are not going to happen this time around.
On March 8, 1971, a handful of activists broke into the FBI’s field office in Media, Penn., and made off with a stack of incriminating documents. Over the next several months, they began to publish what they had learned. In the pre-Internet age, this often meant reprinting the FBI records in the alternative press, though papers such as the Washington Post and New York Times also picked them up. Like Glenn Greenwald’s recent revelations about the NSA, the discoveries from the Media break-in sparked widespread public outrage—and turned out to be one of the biggest scoops in intelligence history.
The program they exposed was called COINTELPRO (short for “counterintelligence program”), known today as the most notorious of the many notorious secret operations authorized by former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
The title of Robert Redford’s new documentary, which aired on the Discovery Channel last night, is All the President’s Men Revisited. At times, it seems more like All the President’s Men Repeated. Though created to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Watergate, the first half of the film contains little that could not be found in Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 political thriller starring Redford and Dustin Hoffman. You know the story: A pair of scrappy young reporters named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein stick to their guns when nobody else will, and their reporting helps to bring down a president.
This is, to be sure, a terrific story. No matter how many times you’ve heard it before, there is something gripping about watching Nixon’s slow, painful descent into national disgrace.
In 1985, when I was 13 years old, a woman suffering from schizophrenia brought a semiautomatic rifle to our local mall and began shooting. This was the mall where I picked out clothes from the Gap, where I sat for photos with Santa Claus as a toddler, where kids my age were just starting to hang out and flaunt their independence. The woman, 25-year-old Sylvia Seegrist, killed three people, including a 2-year-old child, and shot several others before being subdued by a man who thought she was shooting blanks. When asked why she had done it, Seegrist said, bizarrely, that “my family makes me nervous.” In other words, there was no reason at all.
There seems to be some confusion about whether or not the United States just witnessed a close election. Perhaps some historical perspective can help: Yes, this was a close election.
J. Edgar Hoover died forty years ago, at the reasonably ripe age of 77. The timing of his death—a heart attack on May 1, 1972—turned out to be a blessing and a curse for his historical legacy. Had he lived a few months longer, he could have become mired in Watergate and been tarnished by the downfall of his longtime ally Richard Nixon. A few years beyond that and he might have been hauled before the Church Committee to answer for the civil liberties abuses committed during his thirty-seven-year tenure at the FBI. His death spared him the experience of seeing the bureau maligned, denounced and partially dismantled in the 1970s. But it also made him a poster boy—often rightly, sometimes wrongly—for all that had gone wrong in American intelligence policy since the ugly days of the Palmer raids in the wake of World War I.
Timothy Messer-Kruse’s The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age (2011) provides ample grist for a larger discussion of Gilded Age labor, radicalism, and the contemporary system of justice. Messer-Kruse’s close examination of the full trial testimony and his twinned conclusions that there was likely a conspiracy to commit violence among the accused and that most of the guilty verdicts should be considered “fair” by the standards of the day are two aspects that set his treatment apart from others. While generally giving the author credit for changing the grounds of the Haymarket debate, our own jury remains skeptical. Richard Schneirov returns to the scene of the crime with his own lawyer-like disputation of the guilty verdicts. Kevin Boyle cautions against using courtroom testimony “with such assurance.” Beverly Gage regrets the lack of larger context, including the viciousness of reactions aimed at the larger labor movement and the radicals themselves. Comparing Haymarket to the Rodney King and O. J. Simpson trials, Janice L. Reiff likewise points to key elements of reception that are left out of Messer-Kruse’s account. In conclusion, the author treats his critics with clemency.
Ask Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan how he became a conservative and he’ll probably answer by citing a book. It might be Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Or perhaps he’ll come up with Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, or even Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. All of these books are staples of the modern conservative canon, works with the reputed power to radicalize even the most tepid Republican. Over the last half-century, they have been vital to the conservative movement’s success—and to liberalism’s demise.
A hundred years ago, the most famous banker in America testified before Congress in one of his last public appearances. His name (hint: you’ve seen it in recent headlines) was John Pierpont Morgan, the redoubtable founding father of today’s JPMorgan Chase. At the time, Morgan was without peer in American banking, simultaneously the old man and the great innovator of American finance. The list of corporations he organized was legendary: U.S. Steel, International Harvester, General Electric. So was his personal power. From the dawn of the Gilded Age, he reigned as “the boss of bosses,” in the words of muckraker Lincoln Steffens, a mystical figurehead and ruthless businessman wrapped up in a single top-hatted, pot-bellied package.