“We want no Gestapo or secret police,” wrote the 33rd president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, in 1945. “FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex life scandals and plain blackmail when they should be catching criminals.”
Since before the formation of what would become the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the United States government has, through various means, been involved in the collection of information of private citizens and foreign nationals. Under J. Edgar Hoover, this intel-gathering got so far out of control that the government itself fell under the FBI’s thumb. One of the most useful means of gaining control over targets was, of course, sex. Not everyone was a communist or a spy (or a terrorist, for that matter), but very few people have nothing to hide when it comes to their sexual lives or desires. Hoover obsessively collected this information on everyone — particularly opponents or people in positions to remove him from power. The tactic proved so useful, Hoover remained in control of the bureau for 48 years.
The National Security Agency (NSA), around in a distant incarnation a little less than a decade after the FBI’s predecessor was founded, began dabbling in eavesdropping almost immediately after its inception. Its officials convinced Western Union, at the time the largest telegram company in the United States, to allow them to monitor the communications coming through the wires. “After the men had put all our cards on the table, [Western Union President Newcomb Carlton] seemed anxious to do everything he could for us,” cytologist and “Black Chamber” chief, Herbert O. Yardley recalled.
There were many iterations between that small Manhattan-based outfit and the NSA we know today. As the Signals Intelligence Service, it appealed to telegraph companies, again attaining the communications of citizens and foreigners alike. This arrangement endured even after the agency was reimagined into the NSA in the 1950s, under the aforementioned Truman. It wasn’t until the aftermath of Watergate that the nation rallied to put an end on mass surveillance in the United States. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978 had this effect and for a breath over two decades, Americans enjoyed relative privacy.
Then, the September 11 attacks happened in 2001. As the NSA’s global surveillance disclosures leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and others reveal, the agency wasted no time approaching modern telecom companies for access to communications and data. When access was denied, the NSA used technology made available by the post-September 11 budget increases to break in and steal that information anyway, a high-tech version of the black bag job that makes the bugs planted by the FBI in Hiltons and Holiday Inns around the nation back in the day seem rather quaint by comparison.
Different name, maybe, but essentially same dog, and same tricks.
The latest throwback is that the NSA has been busy collecting the records of the online sexual activity and porn site visits of agitators, both here and abroad. Reporting for the Huffington Post, Ryan Grim elaborates:
The document, provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, identifies six targets, all Muslims, as “exemplars” of how “personal vulnerabilities” can be learned through electronic surveillance, and then exploited to undermine a target’s credibility, reputation and authority.
The NSA document, dated Oct. 3, 2012, repeatedly refers to the power of charges of hypocrisy to undermine such a messenger. “A previous SIGINT” — or signals intelligence, the interception of communications — “assessment report on radicalization indicated that radicalizers appear to be particularly vulnerable in the area of authority when their private and public behaviors are not consistent,” the document argues.
Among the vulnerabilities listed by the NSA that can be effectively exploited are “viewing sexually explicit material online” and “using sexually explicit persuasive language when communicating with inexperienced young girls.”
None of the six individuals who are filling NSA dossiers with porn and other reputation-destroyers stand accused of being involved in a terror plot. The documents released by Snowden indicate that it is believed that they have “more contacts with affiliates of extremist groups” and that they are using social media to “radicalize” people. So far, few members of the American public have expressed alarm, once again showing how willing people are to give up their rights when the boogeyman is scary enough.
“It’s important to remember that the NSAâ€™s surveillance activities are anything but narrowly focused — the agency is collecting massive amounts of sensitive information about virtually everyone,” offers Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “Wherever you are, the NSA’s databases store information about your political views, your medical history, your intimate relationships and your activities online. The NSA says this personal information won’t be abused, but these documents show that the NSA probably defines ‘abuse’ very narrowly.”
Personal misuse, which was reported in August, is the least of our problems. History has lessons, but as long as we continue acting like we have the memory of a goldfish, we’re doomed to committing the same mistakes over and over.
Header image by Jef Pearlman.