Were there any “Side Effects” of Being Watched?

“This sense that the FBI was omnipresent was its own kind of power.”-Tim Weiner. Enemies, 77

There are obvious benefits and outcomes that emerged from FBI surveillance. One was information. The first and foremost reason for surveillance was intelligence gathering. However, there is something else that interested me about the omnipresence of these FBI listening devices and informants. Were there any “Side Effects”? Were there any unforeseen benefits or detriments for the FBI? One of the most intriguing ones to me is the idea that knowing you are being watched alters behavior. How can we better understand this effect? What writings can we turn to?

David J. Garrow is one of the more prolific writers on the topic of FBI investigations and techniques during the 1950s and 60s. In a 1988 article, Garrow touches on the subject. He writes:

“With regard to informant’s presence, much more tough-minded consideration must be given to whether passive presence has had tangible effects, to how significant a number of instances of informant activism or agent provocateur behavior actually occurred, and to whether activists’ expectations of informers’ presence may really have been the most significant internal effect of all. Widespread suspicion of informant penetration provided fertile ground for accusations of betrayal whenever movement tensions led to angry, personal recriminations.”[1]

The Panopticon as imagined by Jeremy Benthem can serve as an analogy to the Surveillance system.

The figure that I find it most beneficial to turn to for these answers  is French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault. Based on the ideas of British philosopher and social thinker Jeremy Benthem, Foucault dedicated an entire chapter of his book Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison, to the idea of the Panopticon, the round prison. The prison is a giant circle in which all of the cells face inward toward a giant tower. The tower’s windows are slated so even though the prisoners know they are being watched, they cannot see their surveyors. Foucault writes, “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” [2]

We see this principle unintentionally used by the FBI time and time again. The entire culture of the era was steeped in the understanding that FBI agents, informants, or wiretaps were out there and therefore, one must alter one’s behavior. Movies or popular stories such as 1951’s film I Was A Communist for the FBI, also helped to propagate this fear of FBI infiltration.

The paranoia was effective. One particularly interesting incident involved the American Communist newspaper The Daily Worker. On January 12, 1953, The Daily Worker accused the FBI of harassing its journalists and beseeched the attorney general to take action. The interesting fact however is that the FBI had not harassed any Worker writers. In fact, besides monitoring the publication with daily clippings, little surveillance had been conducted on the daily publication. In a memorandum from the Washington office to the New York office the author writes, “The (Communist) Part has evidently become so jittery that they decided to try to apply pressure on the Attorney General by accusing the Bureau of intimidation and the use of threats both of which are false. It is believed that we should ignore this attempt…in fact this should give impetus to the program as the Party is undoubtedly very much concerned over our successful penetration.” [3] Here we see the Panopticon in action, the fear of being watched overtaking the reality of the situation.

In fact, the prison as Foucault envisioned it, has one more comparison to Hoover’s objectives in the Second Red Scare. Foucault writes that within the construct of the surveillance tower, even the surveyors may be watched and monitored by their superiors. He writes, “In this central tower, the director may spy on all the employees that he has under his orders…he will be able to judge them continuously, alter their behavior, impose upon them the methods he thinks best.”[4]Again, the theory has analogous roots in the FBI structure. FBI special

FBI recruits, like those in this picture taken in 1947, were under almost constant surveillance by moles within their training groups.

agent William Sullivan joined the bureau in 1941 and eventually rose in the ranks to third in command of the entire organization. In his memoir The Bureau: My Thirty Years in Hoover’s FBI, Sullivan remarks that from the first day of training on, the threat of internal spies turning agents in for being overly critical of policy or for indecent behavior is perpetual.[5]

The knowledge of FBI presence for both citizens and lesser agents may have contributed to a considerable behavioral change, although substantiating that may be a very difficult task for historians. Either way, the idea of the Panopitcon should remain a very real and effective comparison to make when analyzing surveillance theory and the FBI during this era.

[1] David J. Garrow. “FBI Political Harassment and FBI Historiography: Analyzing Informants and Measuring Effects.” The Public Historian, Vol. 10, No. 4. (Autumn, 1988. Pp. 17.

[2] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1977. Pp. 201.

[3] Federal Bureau of Investigation. “The Daily Worker Internal Security” Mr. A.H. Belmont to Mr. J.E Dunn. (January 11, 1953). http://vault.fbi.gov/Daily%20Worker/Daily%20Worker%20Part%204%20of%205/view (accessed April 9, 2012)

[4] Foucault, 204.

[5] William C. Sullivan. The Bureau: My Thirty Years in Hoover’s FBI. New York: Norton, 1979. Pp. 19.

Who “Green Lighted” Modern Surveillance and why?

In 1942, the FBI discovery of 8 Nazi Spies in the U.S. helped to add to FDR's paranoia.

“A free people must have both security and liberty. They are warring forces, yet we cannot have one without the other.”  -Tim Weiner. Enemies, xv.

I want to start by asking you a question. Was Surveillance right? Is it morally justified?  Many people will tell you it was unconstitutional and evil, others will say it was a necessity against the communist threat in America. Historians and authors have argued over this issue from both sides of the proverbial aisle for decades. The answer probably lies, like in most issues, somewhere in the middle. For now though, it’s useful to go off the premise that there is just no right answer.

I find it more productive to ask questions whose answers can be found in historical evidence. For example, the question that titles this post. It turns the political issue on its head for instance, to know that one of the most progressive figures of the 20th century was the person who first gave director of the FBI,  J. Edgar Hoover, the go a head on technically illegal and unconstitutional wiretaps as well as other systems of surveillance. That progressive man was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the reason why he thought intelligence so necessary is rooted in the fear of the Soviet and Nazi spies that lurked within the United States. These spies and saboteurs were very real and very well documented.

Journalist Tim Weiner’s new book Enemies: A History of the FBI is the first book of its kind and gives a detailed and concise narrative of the FBI as an intelligence and surveillance organization rather than a crime fighting institution. Weiner chronicles the serious backlash that occurred after the 1920s when Hoover’s overzealous and shockingly illegal attempts to prove a conspiratorial link between American Communists and the Soviet Union backfired. After this period, often called the First Red Scare, the power of the FBI was drastically rained in by the legislative and judicial branches of the government.[1]

Just as the FBI’s espionage operations seemed to have been overtaken by the more constitutional crime fighting wing, the new president Franklin Delano Roosevelt stepped in to re-grant the FBI secret powers that would have made the fledgling ACLU cringe. FDR, afraid of America’s lack of intelligence organizations and scared of Nazi spies and saboteurs on American soil, began funneling money under the table and without the approval of Congress straight to the FBI. In 1938 the FBI had only 587 full time employees and wiretapping, mail opening, and bugging, were still declared unconstitutional and illegal. By mid 1940 however, in the name of national security and with direct permission from President Roosevelt, the FBI had all but doubled its amount of agents, as well as planted almost 7,000 wire taps and nearly 2,000 bugs without warrants.[2] Memorandums from FDR to his Attorney General Robert Jackson authorizing wiretapping of “suspected subversives” are well documented and often turn up in Government investigations as a root of unconstitutional behavior in the FBI.[3]

These actions were justified by the necessity of surveillance and intelligence during a time of world conflict in order to maintain national security. It was this precedent (aided by Hoover’s public relation campaigns to expose the domestic communist threat in the post-war period), that kept America in a perpetual state of extenuating circumstances.

Movie Poster-"Confessions of a Nazi Spy" (1939)

[1] Tim Weiner, Enemies: A History of the FBI. New York: Random House, 2012. Pp. 59.

[2] Weiner, 88.

[3]Committee, Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans: 1976 US Senate Report on Illegal Wiretaps and Domestic Spying by the FBI, CIA, and NSA. St. Petersburg: Red and Black Publishers, 2007. Pp. 26.