"Reading between the Lines": The Bureau of Investigation, the United States Post Office, and Domestic Surveillance during World War I
Conolly-Smith, Peter, Social Justice
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.
For most of its first decade of existence (1908 to 1916), the bureau's activities were limited to the investigation of federal crimes, primarily violations of the 1910 Mann Act, which prohibited the transportation of unwed women across state lines for immoral purposes (Powers, 2004:63-71). (1) Then, on July 31, 1916, a munitions depot on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor was destroyed by an explosion so violent that it sent shrapnel flying into the Statue of Liberty, shattering windows as far away as Times Square (New York Times, 1916). By this time, with war raging in Europe and Woodrow Wilson running for his second term as president, Thomas W. Gregory was attorney general and A. Bruce Bielaski had become head of the Bureau of Investigation. The Black Tom explosion prompted Wilson to expand the bureau's authority to include the investigation of acts of arson and sabotage suspected to be the work of foreign agents. Soon thereafter, the declaration of war by the United States on April 6, 1917, was accompanied by a flurry of laws that further increased the bureau's new responsibilities within the realm of national security, with the Espionage Act the most important (June 15), along with the attendant Trading with the Enemy Act of October 6, and the later amendment of May 16, 1918, known as the Sedition Act. These acts ushered in the wartime cooperation between Bielaski's Bureau of Investigation and the United States Post Office.
The Espionage and Trading with the Enemy Acts, 1917
The Espionage Act called for a fine of up to $10,000 and imprisonment for a period of up to 20 years for anyone found guilty of having "willfully obstructed" the United States' war effort or supported those of its enemies in speech or in print. Furthermore, every "publication, matter, or thing, of any kind, containing any matter advocating or urging treason, insurrection, or forcible resistance to any law of the United States" was officially declared "nonmailable," with violators liable to be fined up to $5,000 and imprisoned for up to five years (Mock, 1941: 50). Never entirely comfortable with the sweeping powers this latter provision gave Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, Congress urged him to disclose his exact instructions to local postmasters. Stating that such a "disclosure would not be compatible with the public interest," Burleson declined, although he insisted that he had no intention to "suppress free criticism, right or wrong, of the Government." Even after he and his solicitor, Judge William H. Lamar, had barred 15 socialist publications from the mail within the first month of the law's passage, he still claimed that his department had not "attempted in any way to interfere with the legitimate expression of views which do not coincide with those of the Government" (Fowler, 1977: 113-114; Johnson, 1962: 50).
Following closely on the heels of the Espionage Act, the Trading with the Enemy Act provided under its Section 19 that foreign-language publications could no longer send through the mail, without filing translations with local postmasters, "any news item, editorial or other printed matter, respecting the government of the United States, or of any nation engaged in the present war, its policies, international relations, the state or conduct of the war or any matter relating thereto" (Mock, 1941: 141). Any such news item had to be cleared by the Post Office, a time-consuming affair that could delay publication for days and even weeks. The law applied to the English-language press, too, requiring that all newspapers regardless of language file daily copies (along with notarized translations, if necessary) of all war-related news "until such a time as the government was sufficiently convinced of [their] loyalty ... to issue a permit exempting [them] henceforth from the cumbersome and expensive process" (Wittke, 1957: 264-265).
Beginning in late 1917, approximately 2,000 publications filed for such a permit, of which only 650 had been granted by January 1919. With circulations generally dependent upon mail subscriptions and advertising, many of the journals that did not receive a permit either caved in or were forced into bankruptcy. If a single issue of a publication was barred from the mail, the publication, having skipped that number, …
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Publication information: Article title: "Reading between the Lines": The Bureau of Investigation, the United States Post Office, and Domestic Surveillance during World War I. Contributors: Conolly-Smith, Peter - Author. Journal title: Social Justice. Volume: 36. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2009. Page number: 7+. © 1998 Crime and Social Justice Associates. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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