Abraham Lincoln, too, approved of government snooping

Lincoln's Last Night NGCUS -  Ep Code 4578

David T.Z. Minich UNVEILS a little-known bit of history:

By leaking details of the National Security Agency’s data-mining program, Edward J. Snowden revealed that the government’s surveillance efforts were far more extensive than previously understood. Many commentators have deemed the government’s activities alarming and unprecedented. The N.S.A.’s program is indeed alarming — but not, from a historical perspective, unprecedented. And history suggests that we should worry less about the surveillance itself and more about when the war in whose name the surveillance is being conducted will end.

In 1862, after President Abraham Lincoln appointed him secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton penned a letter to the president requesting sweeping powers, which would include total control of the telegraph lines. By rerouting those lines through his office, Stanton would keep tabs on vast amounts of communication, journalistic, governmental and personal. On the back of Stanton’s letter Lincoln scribbled his approval: “The Secretary of War has my authority to exercise his discretion in the matter within mentioned.”


Having the telegraph lines running through Stanton’s office made his department the nexus of war information; Lincoln visited regularly to get the latest on the war. Stanton collected news from generals, telegraph operators and reporters. He had a journalist’s love of breaking the story and an autocrat’s obsession with information control. He used his power over the telegraphs to influence what journalists did or didn’t publish. In 1862, the House Judiciary Committee took up the question of “telegraphic censorship” and called for restraint on the part of the administration’s censors.

When I first read Stanton’s requests to Lincoln asking for broad powers, I accepted his information control as a necessary evil. Lincoln was fighting for a cause of the utmost importance in the face of enormous challenges. The benefits of information monitoring, censorship and extrajudicial tactics, though disturbing, were arguably worth their price.

But part of the reason this calculus was acceptable to me was that the trade-offs were not permanent. As the war ended, the emergency measures were rolled back. Information — telegraph and otherwise — began to flow freely again.

So it has been with many wars: a cycle of draconian measures followed by contraction. During the First World War, the Supreme Court found that Charles T. Schenck posed a “clear and present danger” for advocating opposition to the draft; later such speech became more permissible. During the Second World War, habeas corpus was suspended several times — most notably in Hawaii after the Pearl Harbor attack — but afterward such suspensions became rare.

This is why, if you are a critic of the N.S.A.’s surveillance program, it is imperative that the war on terror reach its culmination. In May, President Obama declared that “this war, like all wars, must end.” If history is any guide, ending the seemingly endless state of war is the first step in returning our civil liberties.



  1. Thank you for an excellent piece. I am sick of fellow liberals who seem to think Snowden is some kind of hero. As a Lincoln buff – and writer of the newest Lincoln movie “Saving Lincoln” – it was great to read your article. Please check out our website or FB page, I think you would love our movie, it’s now out on DVD.
    Best regards, – Nina Litvak

  2. Robert

    ” If history is any guide, ending the seemingly endless state of war is the first step in returning our civil liberties.”

    Never going to happen. That facility in Utah and the other like it are permanent facilities. Information is money. There will always be some conjured up boogyman/woman to keep the public in a constant state of fear, panic and prejudice. You can bank on that. Because it works.

    I will say this again, the NSA program is not about catching terrorists as much as it is about keeping an eye on all of us and knowing just about everything they can about our behaviors and inclinations, not to mention the leaks of information gathered, should you become a threat to the powers that be. It is nothing but a rehashed, re labeled and re implemented Total Information Awareness system that was initiated by the likes of John Poindexter, a long time ago.

    This information will be used to quash any dissent, freedoms of speech, freedoms of associations and new political movements outside of what is approved by our new government of, for and by the corporations and the elected officials who front for them.

    When the political figures and the media whores that shill for them say, well whose speech has been curtailed, look at all the dirt that will be thrown at the people who try to change things or get in the way of what the corporations want. Look at the dirt they’ve dug up on Greenwald, that reporter who printed Snowden’s leaked NSA information.

  3. Robert

    “Why of course the people don’t want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally the common people don’t want war: neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But after all it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or fascist dictorship, or a parliament or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peace makers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”― Hermann Goering

    The same can be said about these new technologies the NSA is using. “…All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peace makers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

    Same formula, different country, doesn’t matter. There were plenty of sheeple in the 30s, just like there is today. You stand a bigger chance of being a victim of gang related violence in Rockford than you do being some victim of a terrorist.

  4. Brian Opsahl

    Do you have proof that this is how it’s happening Robert or is this just your opinion…?
    We all like to think we know what’s going on but we don’t. The NSAs job is to keep all this kind of stuff a secret…that’s why Snowden is being hunted down…he is a criminal who committed a felony against the United States.

    You don’t think theres a reason the Chinese or Russians want there hands on him…?
    This guy has committed high treason and we better find him fast before all his information ends up in the wrong hands.

  5. Robert

    Brian, if catching terrorist was its objective, why didn’t it catch the Boston bombers before they blew up their bombs? Bombs they looked up how to make on the internet, for example, not to mention all the history the supposed oversight agencies had on these two as well as the background information that the Russians gave us on the older brother’s affiliations.

    If there were ever an example of a system not working as its being sold to us as being, that’s one hell of an example. But you keep believing its all about catching those big bad terrorists that are lurking around every street corner.

    What do you think the new “cloud” storage back up systems are for, convenience? Yeah, convenience so the NSA can snoop on anything they want to with ease, as opposed to all that data sitting on our own hard drives and what used to be called mainframes.

    So Brian, if it makes you feel better that all this NSA snooping is only temporary and that big NSA data storage center in Utah is just a temporary thing all in place to keep you safe, go ahead and think that way if it makes you feel better.

    And yes, its my informed opinion. How can anybody not see where all this is leading?

  6. Brian Opsahl

    Robert, slow down…your putting alot of words there I didn’t say.

    As I have said before you would be shocked to know what all they do at the NSA.
    You have to believe that they are doing whats best for our National Security if not then why have we went this long without ever knowing any of this was going on in the first place. Why not a bunch of folks getting busted for what your claiming to be happening Robert…?

    Fact is that we really can’t do anything about what they do that’s why there called the National Security Agency…and somethings are better left to those who know the risk to our Nation.

  7. Brian Opsahl

    Of all the Presidents our Nation has had, Mr.Lincoln is by far the best one of all of them…Steven Spielburgs movie titled Lincoln gives us a small glimse of the many great things he accomplished with so many against him…he truly was our greatest President ever…!!

  8. Robert

    Brian, the reach of the NSA is too vast. And this whole phony terrorism ruse is how its being accomplished. This transparency thing that Obama was supposed to operating under is about us and everything about us being transparent, not him and his plans. If there’s no such thing as privacy in our papers and all the things the constitutional provisions afforded us, then change the constitution.

    Nobody can answer my question. If this NSA snooping is all about catching terrorist, why didn’t it catch the Boston bombers well before they detonated those bombs? If this NSA program supposedly has stopped 50 or so incidents, why haven’t we heard about them until now? This administration like the last one boasted all they could when they caught supposed terrorist they caught. Especially the ones the FBI groomed and even handed supposed switch to so the perp could press it an blow up a Christmas celebration.

    Why didn’t they boast about all these 50 or so claims that support the NSA snooping is working. Because they’re lying to us. Why is that so hard for people to see?

  9. Brian Opsahl

    I can only say that of course they can never catch every single one as the Boston bombing proves …but what else was proven is that within just 3 days they had idendified these guys with some pretty remarkable technology with face recognition.

    Can you say how many terroist attacks were prevented…? of course not…and rememeber it is Congress that has agreed in the past to let them do this…right.

    This didn’t just happen yesterday.

  10. Robert

    I got no problem with the technologies. It’s the abuse of them that I’m concerned with.

  11. Brian Opsahl

    Were supposed to have congressional oversight…somethings are worth worrying about but if you can’t see it or touch it then you really can’t do anything about it…unless you change the elected on those committees…and that can be done every 2 years.

    This new technologies stuff isnt slowing down at all, if anything it’s getting better everyday.

  12. Mr. Baseball

    Not one of Lincoln’s better decisions.

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