This opinion piece ran in the Providence Journal on Thursday, August 1, 2002.
SOUTH HADLEY, Mass. IN EVERY national security crisis, real or imagined, officials insist that what this nation really needs is more domestic spying. It happened in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and during the civil-rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. It is happening again.
The understandable impulse to get as much intelligence as possible about al-Qaida's operations against the United States has already been taken to excessive lengths. Last fall, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft ordered the secret detention, for indefinite questioning, of over 1,100 resident aliens on the outside chance that they might know something about al-Qaida, simply because they were from the Middle East.
Last month, the Justice Department claimed that an American civilian, like alleged "dirty bomb" conspirator Jose Padilla, could be detained indefinitely by the military, without trial, simply by labeling him an "enemy combatant." And it is trying to deny legal counsel to another American citizen, Yaser Esam Hamdi, captured in Afghanistan but held in Virginia.
More recently still, the Justice Department announced an ambitious plan to recruit a million informants from the ranks of mailmen, repairmen, meter readers, and others privileged to visit private homes. Their assignment: Report anything about our beliefs, actions, possessions, or associates that they consider suspicious. The plan is called TIPS, for Terrorism Information and Prevention System.
If that is not enough, some administration officials believe that the military should be given a larger domestic surveillance role. To achieve this end, they want Congress to repeal the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which forbids direct military involvement in domestic law enforcement.
It is unfortunate that the officials who advocate such ideas know so little about American history. If they did, they would concentrate on investigating al-Qaida and skip the dragnet surveillance of civilians, which has, in the past, wasted enormous amounts of time and money, produced almost nothing of value, and massively violated the rights of law-abiding persons.
During the Cold War, the FBI conducted 500,000 "counterintelligence" investigations of Americans with alleged Communist Party sympathies, but never produced an indictment. The bureau, supposedly an professional agency, thought it necessary to open a file on me because I had signed a petition calling for the abolition of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
During the 1960s, Army intelligence secretly computerized files on millions of law-abiding Americans. Its plainclothes agents spied on virtually every anti-war or civil-rights demonstration involving 20 people or more but never predicted a riot or witnessed anyone trying to incite one.
I learned of this program while serving as a captain in Army Intelligence and disclosed its operations in 1970 to Congress, the courts and the press. Its professionals then targeted me for surveillance, even while I was working for Congress and carried press credentials. It asked my mailman to monitor my correspondence and put me on President Nixon's "enemies list," which meant a punitive tax audit. The Army's intelligence chief even hoped to prove that the "Chi Coms" (Chinese Communists) were paying my bills, when it should have been obvious that I was attending graduate school on the G.I. bill. With professionals like these, who needs amateurs?
For amateur snooping, however, nothing can trump the American Protective League during World War I. During World War I, members of this civilian organization of neighborhood watchers were issued Justice Department badges and asked to report on the pro-German sympathies of people in their communities. Attorney General Ashcroft has probably never heard of the APL, but he ought to study its record carefully, because it is the true forerunner of TIPS.
Its officious inter-meddlers flooded both the Justice Department and the Army with torrents of useless gossip and defamed the reputations of thousands of law-abiding German-Americans. The APL's unfounded allegations often leaked to the press and encouraged hysterical fears of spies and saboteurs, which harried wartime officials then had to spend valuable time assuaging. The APL's suspicions also helped to legitimate private acts of vigilantism against German-Americans and encouraged civilian and military efforts to suppress the labor movement.
Shortly after Sept. 11, the Bush administration cautioned Americans not to stereotype people of Arab ancestry as potential terrorists. That was not only an accurate assessment of the situation, but a wise investment in goodwill. It makes much more sense to treat potential informants of any background well, and thereby encourage them to report any plots they overhear (probably in a foreign language), than to unleash a host of amateur snoops on all Americans.
Christopher H. Pyle teaches law and politics at Mount Holyoke College and is the author of Military Surveillance of Civilian Politics, 1967-1970.