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War and Privacy: The 100 Year Immiscible Mixture In America

by Brian A. Wilkins
April 7, 2017

Tomahawk missile being launched from USS Ross in Mediterranean Sea. Photo courtesy U.S. Navy

President Donald J. Trump on Thursday ordered the U.S. Navy to launch Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian base in Homs province that the President says was the origin of a chemical weapons attack earlier this week. A total of 59 missiles were launched from the Navy destroyer. At least seven Syrian military personnel were killed in the strikes, according to Syrian officials. The Levant Times reports that at least nine civilians, including four children, were killed in the assault, with seven more civilians severely injured. Hundreds of homes were also damaged in the attacks, leaving many more people with nowhere to go.

Reactions to the strikes have been mixed. Senator Marco Rubio, R-FL, one of Mr. Trump’s opponents in the 2016 Presidential Election, called the strikes “an appropriate thing to do.” Congressman Ted Lieu, D-CA, called the strikes “unconstitutional” in a statement released this morning. A statement from the Kremlin called the strikes “aggression against a sovereign state” and that the actions would cause “major damage” to US-Russia relations. Russia has since suspended an agreement that created a “deconfliction line” between Russian and U.S. military personnel in Syria.

The short and long-term consequences of these strikes are yet to be determined. But the fact Russia and Iran are close allies with Syria begs the question. Will the U.S. be dragged into another prolonged war similar to Afghanistan, Iran or even Vietnam? What is known for certain is that freedoms, particularly your right to privacy, are the first civilian privileges revoked by government in times of war. This pattern was established long before 9/11 and the Patriot Act.

World War I & II

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1914, government officials wanted to make absolutely certain that all Americans supported the effort whether they wanted to or not. Like Muslims are looked at with suspension today by federal and state agencies, Germans and anyone who sympathized with them were the target in the early 20th century. Immigrants who spoke German, Czech and other European languages were forced to speak English or be met with violence in the streets and potential arrest. All this culminated in the Espionage Act being passed by Congress and signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917. The Sedition Act was signed into law several months later.

The combination of the two Acts made it a crime to, among other things, to speak in public or over the phone in any language other than English and to send mail or print newspapers in any language other than English. The U.S. Post Office was given the authority to open and destroy any mail it deemed a threat to the war effort. Many of the investigations into potentially traitorous acts as defined by federal government were executed by the Bureau of Investigation that was formed in 1908 by Attorney General Charles Bonaparte. After the war, the Division on Radical Publications was formed within the Bureau of Investigation. It was headed by a young J. Edgar Hoover, who committed the rest of his life to investigating and arresting America’s new enemy: Communists.

Hoover began wiretapping phones, intercepting mail and placing human informants in organizations deemed fascist, communist or “hostile.” The Bureau of Investigation became the FBI in 1935. After World War II, the NSA Act formed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) despite objections from many in Congress and media who compared the agency to secret police like the KGB and Gestapo. The combination of the CIA and NSA would soon thereafter commence what has now become normal surveillance activity in the U.S.

Remembering the Church Committee

“The [NSA’s]capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.”

U.S. Senator Frank Church, D-ID, warned Americans during the Vietnam War in the 1970s about the U.S. Intelligence community’s potential.

A U.S. Senate Committee known as the Church Committee was formed in 1975 to investigate continual abuses of power by U.S. Intelligence Agencies, including the FBI, CIA and IRS, during times of war. One of the most startling revelations to come from the investigations was a CIA and FBI program known as HTLINGUAL. The program, according to the CIA, was created to gather foreign intelligence by intercepting and opening U.S. mail.

All told the program screened nearly 28 million piece of U.S. mail, and opened and read at least 215,000 of them between 1953-1973. It was discovered during Church Committee investigations that many American citizens, particularly anti-war and Civil Rights activists, were targeted in the program. Despite the illegality of HTLINGUAL, no government actors were prosecuted. The Church Committee was made permanent thereafter and renamed the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

What It All Means Today

Privacy was something Americans took for granted for far too long. Privacy is now a luxury that you must want and take, not expect. But the maze of protocols, apps and methods to resurrect and maintain privacy, particularly online, cause many Americans to simply concede defeat. The escalation of war in Syria could now mean more shadow surveillance and restrictions. Its up to you to take action.

Click here to protect yourself now.