Privacy SOS

If J. Edgar had biometrics: state repression isn’t new, but technology raises the stakes

Some of us are very worried. If you regularly read this blog, you are likely one of the worriers.

We worry because we are surveillance state watchers, because we are people concerned about the degree to which US culture has been warped by fear-driven narratives that cast Muslims as the enemy in a never-ending, borderless ‘war on terror’. We worry because we see state institutions, seemingly hell-bent on shredding the Bill of Rights, deploy that fear in the service of any number of anti-democratic horrors: extrajudicial assassination, indefinite detention, secret law, mass suspicionless surveillance, the militarization of the police.

An authoritarian impulse to control, monitor, and oppress appears to guide the hands of our most powerful agencies – those secretive, three letter organizations that suck up increasingly substantial quantities of our hard earned money, with little besides repression and misery to show for it.

Many of we worriers, myself included, regularly warn that if we don’t take drastic action to roll back the surveillance state, to end the wars on drugs and terror, we will become what our leaders claim they most despise. We warn that things are getting very bad, that if we don’t turn back and make significant adjustments, we are headed for a totalitarian or quasi-fascist, dystopian future. We shout that the surveillance state and its fear mongers will swallow what’s left of our open society.

In short, we speak as if this is a new set of problems. It isn’t.

But while the motivations, tactics, and strategies of deep state repression are older than the FBI itself, the technologies used to execute them couldn’t be more different today than they were even ten years ago. That’s what makes this moment so significant, given what we now know about the US military’s dragnet spying, and what we’ve long known about the trickle down of the national security state to our local police departments, which increasingly resemble military forces.

In our lifetimes we will see quantum computing, the explosion of commercial nanotechnology, and the integration of the human body with the digital machine. When capability drives policy, and when we leave largely unexamined a history of state repression shrouded by secrecy and excused by 'National Security', we are forging into dangerous waters indeed.

The republic survived the J. Edgar Hoover years without the complete destruction of personal autonomy. But imagine if Hoover had access to 21st century technologies. Given these seismic shifts, it’s unlikely that anything resembling a truly open, democratic society will survive this century – unless we act.

100 years of fear

For approximately the past 100 years, political and economic power has routinely conjured a bogeyman to spook the population into a fear-laden acceptance of this unconstitutional ‘wartime’ law, or that violent assault on the First Amendment rights of dissidents.

First it was anarchists and immigrants – or even better, immigrant anarchists. Then it was communists. In the 1980s it was drug-war related criminals. Now it’s (Muslim) terrorists. Using these tropes to conjure division and mistrust among the people, casting the government as the protector of liberty as it holds her ransom in a dungeon, our nation’s powerful, secretive intelligence officials have long misled the public and even elected representatives about the true nature of their shadowy activities. As we’ve seen more recently in the fallout of the Edward Snowden leaks, they have lied to acquire their power, and they have lied to keep it.

Journalist Seth Rosenfeld’s 2012 book "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power" is required reading for anyone who wants to understand how deep these currents of authoritarian power run in the United States.

Using hundreds of thousands of pages of original source material, Rosenfeld describes how J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI conspired with elected officials, university administrators, newspapers, and local police agencies to crush student movements at UC Berkley in the 1960s. The book, the product of a 30-year FOIA war against the bureau – which reportedly shelled out nearly a million dollars to protect its shameful secrets in a legal battle stretching across four separate lawsuits – offers a detailed and damning portrait of how the worst assaults on democratic freedoms fester and metastasize in the dark.

‘Subversives’ lays bare an organization purportedly established to promote the rule of law as primarily concerned with subverting it in the service of entrenched political and economic interests. Anyone who doubts that warrantless or suspicionless surveillance is used to wield political control in the defense of the status quo – as opposed to ‘protecting public safety’ — will encounter a necessary if bruising education in its pages. Among other lessons, readers learn that the patriarch of the modern FBI was fundamentally disinterested in the rule of law, unless it could be wielded to crush his opponents.

Power alone moved J. Edgar Hoover. And he marshaled his considerable talents and resources to moving power in the direction of his choosing.

Rosenfeld shows us that he had substantial help doing so – from other government officials, newspapers, right-wing citizens movements, and, of course, his army of eager-to-please if at times incompetent FBI agents spread out across the nation.

In his quest to destroy left-wing movements, Hoover found a great ally in the now disgraced Senator Joseph McCarthy.


Publicly, the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee were separate and independent government bodies. Covertly, they were collaborators helping each other fight common enemies and promote shared political objectives. The bureau’s massive files were by law confidential, something Hoover described as sacrosanct. But at his direction senior bureau officials confidentially gave selected HUAC staff members FBI intelligence reports about people the committee was targeting. The committee then forced them to appear by subpoena and questioned them under oath, without disclosing the bureau’s role. The committee, in turn, gave the FBI information it compelled these witnesses to turn over. Hoover thus used HUAC to investigate people and to discredit them as disloyal, even though he lacked sufficient evidence to charge them with any crime.

While reading about this behind the scenes (possibly illegal) collaboration between the security services and congressional investigators, I thought of Congressman Peter King's 2011 anti-Muslim witch-hunts. Eric Holder and Robert Mueller may not have liked Peter King’s style, but it’s not difficult to imagine how the latter’s Islamophobic Homeland Security Committee hearings provided congressional cover for the 21st century FBI’s war of surveillance and entrapment against Muslim Americans. It's certainly possible that, while the FBI couldn't formally charge groups like CAIR with any crimes, it provided information to King's committee that was used to smear the group in public. As Rosenfeld's book shows, it wouldn't be the first time such a thing had happened in America.

Like today’s ‘national security’ officials, Hoover knew how to manipulate the press, both into covering events to his liking and providing intelligence information on the bureau’s targets. After he tasked his agents with compiling dossiers on students involved in a May 1960 protest against the one and only HUAC hearing to ever take place in San Francisco, the FBI "received secret assistance from San Francisco’s three daily newspapers, which, without so much as a subpoena, confidentially turned over hundreds of unpublished photographs taken at the protest. FBI agents used them to identify people and investigate their political activities."

Old swagger, new toys: the security state is more dangerous now than ever before

Today, the FBI doesn't need to ask newspapers for photographs of protesters. Thanks in large part to federal funding from DOJ and DHS, surveillance cameras now dot our urban landscapes like so many privacy-violating manhole covers. And if the modern FBI has its way, images from those cameras will soon be processed using high-tech face recognition software and fed into its massive 'Next Generation Identification' database, which aims to destroy anonymity once and for all. Someday in the not distant future, the bureau may be able to automatically catalogue every face at every major political demonstration in our major cities, as a matter of routine. All signs suggest it would like that very much.

In a NYT review of Rosenfeld’s book, Matt Taibbi muses on what lessons its revelations hold for the present:

America’s domestic politics may be more ambiguous than they were in the years covered by this book — today, the ultimate boss of the F.B.I. is that onetime community organizer with all of those supposedly questionable ’60s ties — but many of the same problems exposed in this book still exist. Whether it’s Valerie Plame, Ruby Ridge or Roger Clemens, we see the same tendency of politicians to obsess over personal vendettas and of police to chase harmless bugaboos while really dangerous crime and corruption flowers unmonitored. An F.B.I. obsessed with drug trafficking and white-power extremists missed the terrorist conspiracy leading up to 9/11, and the same national police forces today ignore high-level corruption on Wall Street in favor of infiltrating the scattershot Occupy protest movements.

Rosenfeld’s decades of hard-fought research into the romanticized, rapidly receding past of the ’60s era produce a relevant warning. Domestic intelligence forces will tend to use all the powers they’re given (and even some that they’re not) to spy on people who are politically defenseless, irrelevant from a security standpoint and targeted for all the wrong reasons. And policemen who abuse their powers don’t just ruin innocent lives and undermine our faith in the law. They miss the real threats.

While our ‘national security’ officials are spying on dissidents and missing the real threats, they are compiling vast troves of seemingly mundane information about hundreds of millions of people accused of no crime. Just imagine what J. Edgar Hoover – or his ideological descendant – would do with that.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.