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

By Conolly-Smith, Peter | Social Justice, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

"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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.