Abraham Lincoln, too, approved of government snooping
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.