"Reading between the Lines": The Bureau of Investigation, the United States Post Office, and Domestic Surveillance during World War I

Article excerpt

WITH THE FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION CELEBRATING ITS 100 YEAR ON July 26, 2008, and controversy surrounding the Bush administration s domestic surveillance program still unresolved, Americans found themselves yearning for the days when the FBI was the supposedly incorruptible law enforcement agency of popular imagination. Of course, "the FBI of our collective memory never really existed outside the very fertile and imaginative mind of its eternal director," Jay Robert Nash (1972: 13) wrote the year that J. Edgar Hoover died after nearly half a century at the bureau's helm. So successful was Hoover at shaping the FBI's image and his own--their reputations, writes one biographer, were "for all practical purposes ... one and the same"--that their stories have become "indistinguishable." Indeed, "few ... recall that the Bureau of Investigation had been in existence more than a dozen years before Hoover joined it, or that it already had a checkered past" (Powers, 1999: 289; Gentry, 1991:111). As a recent historian of the FBI has noted, "until J. Edgar Hoover became director in 1924, the bureau was faceless.... No one remembers the force's first chief, Stanley W. Finch, or his successor, A. Bruce Bielaski" (Kessler, 2002: 10).

Yet it was under Bielaski, bureau director from 1912 to 1919, that many of the FBI methods popularly associated with Hoover were first introduced. Aided by wartime legislation, during World War I Bielaski orchestrated U.S. history's largest-ever effort to clamp down on dissent, silence protest, and incarcerate radicals. His methods included wire-tapping, the use of informants, and the monitoring of mail, the latter with the cooperation of Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson and the Post Office Department's Solicitor General, Judge William H. Lamar. The wartime collaboration between the Bureau of Investigation and the Post Office Department yielded the first domestic surveillance program in the United States and led to the persecution of hundreds of ordinary citizens and the forced suspension of dozens of English and foreign-language publications. This, then, is the story of the FBI before Hoover--the Bureau of Investigation, as it was then still called--whose surveillance methods Hoover inherited, perfected, and later bequeathed to those still engaged in domestic spying today.

Chief among the parallels between then and now are, first, the larger context: it is easiest to push domestic surveillance legislation through a sometimes pliant, sometimes unwitting Congress during times of war and national crisis, although such legislation often stays on the books long after the war or crisis has passed. As circumstances change and critics become aware that the executive and judiciary branches of government have exceeded the letter of the law, revisions and amendments serve to retroactively bring the legislation into compliance with its already-established use. Rarely is anyone held accountable for an earlier violation of the law; instead, retroactive immunity simply renders moot all instances of prior legal transgressions. Second, such legislation, while ostensibly aimed against the perceived enemies of the United States at that moment, serves to silence dissent among the general population. One way of achieving this is by fostering an atmosphere of heightened anxiety: the public is put on notice that there is a domestic security threat and that surveillance efforts are underway; ordinary citizens are singled out for punishment to intimidate more influential voices of protest into silence; communications systems--the mails during World War I, or long-distance telephone networks in our own times--are "mined" for incriminating data, while the holdings of public repositories of information such as libraries or the Internet are monitored and censored. Such efforts require the mobilization of a coordinated intelligence apparatus. During World War I, they were jointly undertaken by the Justice Department, the Post Office, and the agents and informants of the Bureau of Investigation. …