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Researcher traces 'surveillance state' beginnings to World War I

Friday, March 07, 2014

LAWRENCE — When Edward Snowden in 2013 leaked thousands of classified documents about the reach of the National Security Agency’s surveillance efforts, it touched off a major political debate about privacy and how much access government should have to civilian communication records, such as email and cellphone data.

The leaks have led critics to raise alarms about the United States as a “surveillance state,” and the debate is expected to pick up again Monday, March 10. Snowden — a former NSA contractor who has asylum in Russia while facing federal espionage charges in the United States — is scheduled to speak via videoconference at the 2014 South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas. But a University of Kansas researcher says questions over how far government should be allowed to go regarding surveillance is not new.

In fact, Lon Strauss, a KU lecturer in the Department of History, says it can be traced back to an important anniversary that is nearing. August will mark 100 years since the outbreak of World War I in Europe, and Strauss says the United States’ involvement in the war in 1917 started the growth of America surveillance methods that have continued ever since.

“It’s fascinating to examine America in the early 20th century and see the foundation that influenced subsequent decisions,” Strauss said. “And with what we’re seeing now we can certainly say there’s a direct connection with the type of surveillance state that produced the NSA; that foundation was created in the First World War.”

Strauss, who is working on a book based on his research about the influences upon surveillance methods that started with World War I, has examined American military intelligence records, most of which were largely untouched before.

“The First World War really influenced the formation of the modern state in so many different aspects, and surveillance was one of those that’s often overlooked,” he said.

A key component was the Espionage Act Congress passed in 1917 that Strauss argues formed the foundation for other legislation regarding intelligence practices and the broad reach of the federal government, including executive power. Congress passed the law after joining the war and as a way to curb dissent, mainly among socialists and pacifists, he said.

“These movements all got rolled up into one, and America got into the war so quickly and had to really just get moving,” Strauss said. “There was the expansion of the military, society, economy, and these intelligence agencies were a part of that. And there was nobody. Not enough people had experience in this kind of work before.” 

Strauss argues in his research that intelligence officers targeted certain groups for a reason. They deemed them as “un-American” or German sympathizers. The war ended relatively quickly in 1918, and the military passed along intelligence responsibility to a civilian agency, the Bureau of Investigation, which later became the FBI.

“There weren’t a lot of borders. No one really created a framework in which these agencies were supposed to work,” he said. “So over the years, it contributed to McCarthyism. Previously, in the Second World War, they were much more prescient about aspects of what they were doing. In the first World War, they were looking through people’s mail and sneaking into offices. They were looking through these things that we think are sacred now.”

It’s telling, Strauss said, that men like J. Edgar Hoover got his early training during this period. In decades since, the issue of how far government should go with surveillance in the interest of national security has persisted, including being scaled back after Watergate and then ramping up again after 9/11 with the “War on Terror” spurring legislation like the PATRIOT Act and what Snowden’s leaks have brought to light about NSA practices.

“Those seeds were put in the soil, and they grew,” Strauss said. “We’re still questioning: What is the happy medium between this kind of surveillance and our civil liberties during a crisis?”

Advancements in technology have created new questions about the role of large corporations, especially when the NSA and law enforcement perhaps are not interested so much in the content of emails or calls but setting up large security nets that detail data behind a call or email, such as when it was sent or how many times a number was called.

“But now we’ve seen how far it’s gone, so I think there is much more pushback. How that will influence the NSA and surveillance moving forward will be interesting, especially in regard to espionage and national security,” Strauss said.

It’s also crucial that debating issues of privacy and government surveillance has also persisted.

“It’s why the system is the way it is. It’s why it is a democracy instead of a dictatorship. That’s a product of democratic states where there’s this negotiation among the public, government and businesses,” Strauss said. “And we see that play out from the First World War onward. The First World War is what changed that because before that and even during the war, the idea was the government was not big enough to do everything.”