The Age of Surveillance

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Frank J. Donner has written a very disturbing book, the central message of which is clear from the title and subtitle. Donner contends that since World War I at least, a nation-wide political intelligence system has grown up in the United States which has consistently warred against social and political attempts to change the status quo. This system has many different faces including the FBI, and CIA, a variety of military intelligence programs, the IRS, state and urban antisubversive teams, Congressional and state legislative committees, and private groups and individuals. As disparate as they seem, however, the author contends that they are animated by a single common purpose; to conserve a capitalist-statist economic system while maintaining the forms of political democracy. This is accomplished by thorough-going, repressive, usually covert actions carried out by a domestic political espionage system responding to what Donner believes to be legitimate, usually openly expressed dissent.

Donner is a well-known civil liberties attorney who served as a trial consultant in a series of sedition cases brought under the Smith Act. In 1971, he became Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Project on Political Surveillance. This was the logical culmination of decades of work on his part accumulating materials concerning official and unofficial attacks on nonconformity. This book, and a companion piece on urban political intelligence now under way, are the fruits of his labors.

He approaches his materials with a clearly stated point of view from which he never deviates. There are, he believes, very potent repressive forces at work in American history, forces which he accepts as givens rather than completely analyzing. These revolve around a nativist, antiradical political conservatism linked with a fearful, ideological anti-Communism. A picture emerges of a dangerous combination of agencies and individuals operating under nearly all twentieth century presidents, strong in nearly all Congresses, which have successfully repressed, broken or driven underground not only real or potential revolutionaries but also peaceful, often gentle, advocates of nonviolent change. For these purveyors of “countersubversion,” the Menace (Communism and its allies) is real, violent, and forever almost at our throats. It must be fought with vigilance, persistence, and with means which frequently run outside the clear constraints of the law. It is not always clear whether these battlers against “Communist subversion” actually believe that the Menace exists in that dangerous a form, but it is the necessary Devil, the justification for tactics which deeply threaten fundamental constitutional liberties.

Donner documents these threats in more than five hundred pages. Drawing on evidence gleaned from Congressional hearings during the 1970’s, especially the 1975-1976 Church Committee, and materials acquired under the Freedom of Information Act and his own extensive files, the author, at the very least forces the reader to consider the question of whether or not an effective political security police has not been long at work in this nation.

If the piece has a single villain it must be J. Edgar Hoover. The chief guardian of the United States against the Red conspiracy since before the founding of the FBI until his death in 1972, Hoover epitomizes for Donner the nativist stereotype of the era of A. Mitchell Palmer and the First Red Scare carried forward almost unchanged through the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. Authoritarian, moralizing, confined to his bureaucracy, and isolated from outside intellectual stimulation, he shaped the Bureau into a tool to fit his hand. Totally committed to it, he demanded that the FBI respond with full loyalty to him and his commands. His very complete files on important national figures have become public knowledge as has his willingness to share them with Presidents for their titillation and with a palace guard of personal admirers in Congress who held the purse strings and handled intelligence-gathering legislation.

Equally serious, for the author, is the contention by the Bureau since the 1930’s that it had legal authority to conduct domestic political intelligence operations on United States citizens who were not guilty, or even suspected, of any crime. Donner devotes a chapter to denying that authority came from a 1938 directive from Franklin D. Roosevelt to investigate domestic fascism and communism, from the Alien Registration Act of 1940, or other Presidential directives in 1943, 1950, and 1953. Indeed, Donner concludes that the Bureau and Hoover shrewdly built a vast structure on nothing more than a bureaucratic coup. Important for a legal argument relating to the legitimacy of many of the FBI’s...

(The entire section is 1955 words.)