J Edgar’s Legacy of Surveillance

Photograph Source: FBI – Public Domain

Most US residents have little idea of the level of surveillance in their country. Many of those who have some inkling of how much there is just dismiss it. It’s not that they don’t care; it’s more that there seems to be little anyone can do about it. Corporations designed to siphon personal information from people are the mainstay of the internet and all that it inspires. Every click on an advertisement on one’s phone, a purchase made or even just watching a video of a musician provides some bot with information about the person that made that click. It’s bad enough that the information collected is then made available and often sold to other corporate entities hoping to convince one to cough up some cash for whatever it is they are selling. The fact that the biggest online data collectors are also sharing that information with law enforcement and other agencies is even worse.

Of course, the gathering of US residents’ personal data by the US government is not a new phenomenon. Police informants and other types of infiltrators have been employed by law enforcement agencies at all levels of policing. However, this activity became more widespread and certainly more centralized after the creation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1908 as the Bureau of Investigation. However, it wasn’t truly the monolithic, invasive and outside-the-law agency it became until J. Edgar Hoover became its director in 1924. That appointment symbolized the beginning of the United States as a police state. Despite the media presentation of the FBI as a police agency going after bank robbers, bootleggers, and other criminals during Prohibition USA, Hoover’s focus was the growing leftist influence in the country. According to the agency’s propaganda, which is repeated on the current FBI wikipedia page, Hoover focused on the Ku Klux Klan and various pro-nazi groups in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. The truth is somewhat different.

That truth is the subject of anthropologist David Price’s newest book. Titled The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent, Price’s text is a collection of case studies detailing US government spying on its citizens. Utilizing the advent of wiretapping as a means of investigation, J. Edgar Hoover institutionalized government surveillance and used it primarily against left-leaning and anti-racist individuals and organizations. Author Price filed dozens of Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests in order to write this book. Like anyone requesting these materials knows, it is both a painstaking and often frustrating process. After all, it is the same government that compiled these files that determines whether or not a requester gets access to them. Likewise, it is up to that government as to how much of the information provided will be redacted or just not included. In his discussions of the process, Price makes these aspects clear and occasionally questions the government response to some of his requests.

Despite these setbacks, The American Surveillance State provides the reader with an understanding of who the FBI (and occasionally the CIA) targets and what those agencies consider important in their spying. The subjects Price discusses here range from the Palestinian intellectual and activist Edward Said to the presidential adviser Walt Rostow; from the filmographer Haskell Wexler to the writer and late Counteprunch publisher Alexander Cockburn; and from the leftish economist Andre Gunder Frank to the left-leaning candy maker Fred Haley. There are others, but this brief listing should give the reader an idea of the scope of the Bureau’s surveillance. As presented by Price, the case studies provide some interesting reading and, for those who have always assumed their political activities were of interest to law enforcement, confirm their concerns.

In his discussion and contextualization of the surveillance he narrates, Price argues that the common denominator in determining who the FBI goes after is their attitude regarding the furtherance of US monopoly capitalism. This makes it extremely clear why those leaning left are the most common targets. It also helps explain the tremendous support the FBI received during Hoover’s reign and ever since. After all, virtually every elected politician in Washington is a true believer and supporter of US capitalism. In those rare instances where a congressperson or a senator opposes this or that war or other endeavor undertaken by Washington, chances are Hoover had them investigated and watched. His power was unmatched and his files were feared for what they might contain.

Unfortunately, the power of the FBI did not diminish after Hoover’s death in 1972. Even after the various congressional hearings that exposed the illegal activities of the agency during the operation known as COINTELPRO, the agency was back to its old tricks within a couple years. Nowadays, as Price points out a few times in his book, the 2001 PATRIOT Act not only made everything legal that Mr. Hoover’s FBI was doing, it went much further in what US intelligence agencies are allowed to do and who they are allowed to spy on, intimidate and entrap. In other words, the lessons learned by those who facilitate US government surveillance through funding and other types of support was to give the FBI and other agencies more leeway and more power to do what they want. Unfortunately, most US residents seem to have no problem with this–at least not yet. For those who do, The American Surveillance State is an excellent and well-told resource.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com